It sounded like a setup, planted by Clemson’s own communications department as a trap for some unsuspecting journalist to step on at the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference football kick-around last week.
Sportswriter: “I read in your media guide here, your preseason guide, you guys are losing 78 percent of your production on offense.”
Dabo Swinney (in his best faux-panicked voice): “What are we going to do? Oh, man.”
Clemson’s head football coach is in the most worry-free place a coach can reside coming off a national title and back-to-back conference championships. His Tigers have reached a level of sustainability that the annual turnover is just a blip on the way to training camp. Reinforcements for departed players like Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett and Artavis Scott are only a recruiting class away.
“You go recruiting; that’s what you do,” Swinney said. “You don’t sit around and pout about it. That’s just the nature of college football. I think that’s what makes college football so exciting and so much fun.”
Swinney, in fact, counts on people discounting the Tigers as “rebuilding.” It’s what they don’t know that fools them.
“I love the fact that you make a comment like that because that’s fuel,” he said. “That’s that edge that some of those guys need. Nobody is asking me about Deon Cain yet. This is one of the best receivers in the country. He’s had unbelievable moments. Not one word. We’re talking about a guy that’s gone, and I’m focused on the guys that are here.”
Clemson football has reached a level beyond its former glory days in the early 1980s. It has reached a place where the nation’s best recruits come knocking on Clemson’s door instead of the other way around. And given the track record the Tigers have built in developing waves of talent, the drop-off level from year to year is minimal. There always seems some new all-conference piece replacing whoever got drafted the year before.
So any doubters who wonder if quarterback Kelly Bryant can maintain the standard of production that Watson established behind a veteran offensive line may come to find in a few months that nobody is irreplaceable.
“It’s a very fair question because it’s a lot of production,” Swinney said of the missing pieces. “And I think that’s the natural thing to do is you just look at a piece of paper and you say, wow, and you don’t know these guys.
“But come mid-season, you’re going to know a lot of these guys, and by the end of the season, we’re not going to be talking about all those guys that aren’t here anymore. If we are, we’re going to be talking about how good they’re doing at the next level, because we’ve got good players that are ready to emerge.”
It doesn’t seem that long ago when we were decrying the ACC’s second-rate standing among the Power 5 conferences and its gruesome record in major bowl games.
The job Swinney has done in making the Tigers into a collegiate football power should be the model. It enhanced its coaching and development. It enhanced its facilities. It enhanced its schedule.
The enhanced results speak for themselves with back-to-back trips to meet Alabama in the title game of the College Football Playoff.
“Five, six, seven years ago the story lines were always the same about this league,” Swinney said. “I mean, there’s no sense in complaining about it, let’s go. If we want to change it, we’ve got to go play people and we’ve got to beat them. When we do that, then we’ve got to start writing something different. That was really kind of what I said at that time, and I think that we’ve been able to do that.”
Swinney no longer has to beg his way into the homes of elite recruits like Tajh Boyd. Success and culture made it easier with Watson and 2018 commit Trevor Lawrence to seek out Clemson as a destination school.
And Swinney has proven to be a master salesman as the face of the Tigers.
“As our brand has grown and we’ve had success, we’re going to at least get a conversation … and they’re going to come and see us,” Swinney said. “That’s really helped us a ton because we’ve got a special place here, and when people come and visit, it sells itself. That’s the biggest thing. If we can get guys on campus, we know that we’re going to get our fair share of the right guys.”
So in the middle of July, Swinney is fine if nobody is talking about his roster of relative unknowns and predicting bigger things out of Florida State and Louisville and Miami. Chances are that come November when the Tigers face the Seminoles, a new cast of Tigers will have already proven themselves once again.