CLEMSON — Carlos Watkins celebrated his 22nd birthday a few months ago, but he looks around at his teammates and feels like an old man.
“We’re definitely a young team,” said the defensive tackle and one of Clemson’s eight scholarship seniors.
That’s a miniscule number, one the Tigers figure to overcome by virtue of possessing veterans in the critical positions and a cache of winning during recent seasons. Nonetheless, coach Dabo Swinney has reminded reporters at several turns this spring he’s working with 22 seniors and juniors and, according to plan this fall, a whopping 63 freshmen and sophomores.
“I like the makeup of this team. We’ve got a lot of youth, but we’re talented,” Swinney said. “That hunger and that enthusiasm is positive, and blends well with that veteran savviness we’ve got.”
According to Athlon Sports, Clemson’s total of 12 returning starters is tied with Boston College for the lowest total among the ACC Atlantic Division’s seven members. By contrast, Florida State has 16 returning starters and Louisville has 17.
The Tigers officially have eight returning starters on offense (plus Mike Williams, a 2014 starter back from injury) and four on defense (plus, conceivably, 2014 starter Korrin Wiggins, provided he returns healthy.) Clemson does return kicker Greg Huegel and punter Andy Teasdall, who turns 23 in July and is the team’s oldest scholarship player.
“The numbers would validate that we lack a lot of experience at a lot of levels,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “But there’s a youthful giddiness and excitement. They’re very impressionable, and eager to follow you. We have selfless veterans; the older guys are excited about the talent level of the younger guys, too.”
The current Clemson roster includes just eight seniors on scholarship. Watkins and center Jay Guillermo are the team’s only fifth-year players.
Of the Tigers’ 14 juniors, 12 redshirted at some point. The two exceptions might be Clemson’s best players: quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Artavis Scott.
There are 28 players entering their sophomore year of eligibility, a group including prominent Tigers like receivers Hunter Renfrow and Deon Cain, left tackle Mitch Hyatt, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and Huegel.
And then there are 34 freshmen: 11 are coming off redshirt seasons, seven are currently on campus after enrolling in January and another 16 are on their way this summer.
Does it feel like a young team to the face of Clemson’s program?
“Not really. Not from what I’ve seen this spring,” Watson said. “We do have to build some depth with some young guys, but at the end of the day, you still have to go perform no matter what year you are and how much experience you have. If you’re a ball player, then you can go out there and perform. That’s why you came to college to play football.”
Juniors like Watson, Scott and Williams are considered seniors in the eyes of their coaches — “they’ve earned that credibility,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott — and the goal is to render years in school useless based on the extensive usage of backups during offseason practices.
“When you do that, as a coach, you become numb and forget these guys are freshmen,” Jeff Scott said. “After being here a year and a half, they’ve gotten the reps maybe a junior or senior somewhere else has gotten.
“A guy like Hunter Renfrow, in my mind, he’s like Adam Humphries as a senior. I have to remind myself he’ll be a sophomore. But he’s already been through the battles.”
With just a quarter of the team’s available scholarships taken by juniors or seniors, Watson’s not worried about lack of leadership coming back to bite Clemson this fall in its pursuit of defending the ACC Championship and returning to the College Football Playoff.
“I think it’s because we’ve all been connected, and no one’s selfish,” Watson said. “Everyone is on the same page and working on getting better at their position of what they can do to help the team. Everyone’s happy. No negative vibes. There’s nothing inside messing up the group, so it’s been pretty good.”