COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney couldn’t hide the wide grin as he talked at last about watching the Tigers workout on the field.
“Once we got on the field, it was awesome,” Swinney said Thursday after the opening practice of fall camp. “Just a blessing to be able to get back (with) unbelievable energy and excitement.”
Swinney was just as confident college football would find a way to successfully finish a season amid the conronavirus pandemic. He said his players showed him soon after returning to campus in June they were serious about staying healthy — and doing what it took to play championship football.
“I’m very hopeful and optimistic that we’re going to find a safe way to play,” he said.
The Tigers had some virus issues early on as 37 of 43 people testing positive during the first three weeks since the June return were football players. All were quarantined and none had to be hospitalized. Since then, Clemson football has remained largely healthy and focused on getting back to work.
“They’re commitment has really shined through,” he said.
Not everyone was unaffected. Swinney said starting defensive end Xavier Thomas had contracted COVID-19 while he was away from campus and was more recently diagnosed with strep throat, the illnesses taking effect on his health and mental state.
Swinney said Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 265-pound junior who started eight games last season, will redshirt. The hope is for him to play the four games allowed by the rule and return to the Tigers next season.
“He’s 20 years old,” Swinney said. “We want to do what’s best for him.”
Plenty of things seemed like business as usual for the Tigers, who were 14-0 and had won 29 straight before falling to LSU in the national championship game last January.
The speakers in the practice facility blasted Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” as they typically do at the first workout.
Clemson was picked No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll released Thursday.
And quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne, the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, are once more leading Clemson’s offense.
Lawrence, the 6-foot-6 junior, had the worst game of his college career last time out as he struggled against LSU’s championship defense in the 42-25 loss — the first for Lawrence in college.
But since the pandemic, Lawrence has been the face of the Tigers for his altruism and activism. He and his fiance raised money for COVID-19 sufferers and their families. He also helped organize and lead a march among the Clemson team in June to support social justice.
On Thursday, Swinney said Lawrence was sharp and active on the field, looking like a leader on a team determined to compete for another title.
Etienne, a senior, was widely expected to jump to the NFL after three ultra productive seasons as Clemson’s leading rusher.
But Etienne decided he wasn’t done yet at college and looks to add to his ACC record-total of 56 rushing touchdowns.
Swinney told his players to be grateful for every moment on the field with their teammates given the months of not knowing what might occur or even if the season could be played as the virus continues to affect the state of South Carolina and other areas in the ACC footprint.
He was disappointed with the loss of Clemson’s annual rivalry contest with South Carolina since the Southeastern Conference chose a 10-game, all conference play path for the fall. But he’s excited for what’s out there for the Tigers.
“Seems like I’ve been on a million, jillion calls since March on committees and subcommittees,” Swinney said. “I’m just thankful we have the opportunity.”
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