Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not sure he has ever been this eager to start a season for the top-ranked Tigers after months of uncertainty due to the global pandemic.
“I’ve seen our culture win the day since March,” Swinney said Tuesday. “This is a very close football team, it’s a well-led team, a very smart team and it’s an exciting team. I can’t wait to see them play and get to do what they love to do.”
The Tigers open the COVID-19-altered season at Wake Forest on Saturday night. The coach believes he has a healthy, confident team that is ready to make a run for a sixth Atlantic Coast Conference crown and sixth trip to the College Football Playoff following the suspension of spring workouts in March and a troubling run of coronavirus cases in mid-to-late June.
“There’s nobody that has to be here,” Swinney said. “But everybody’s here.”
That includes quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, and two-time ACC player of the year in tailback Travis Etienne.
“It’s time to play,” Lawrence said.
But the quarterback has also found the time to become a team-leader off the field, speaking out for social justice and the rights of players.
Lawrence posted goals on social media put together by several college players across the nation that call for change, including ensuring teammates are registered to vote and have election day (Nov. 3) “free from athletic obligations” to cast ballots, and using messages and statements on uniforms and helmets to raise awareness of social injustice.
Lawrence and Clemson running back Darien Rencher were leaders in a march last June to protest the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.
“I know that there’s a lot of eyes on me. Critics, but also younger generations and people looking up to me,” Lawrence said. “I want to use my platform the right way.”
The QB said none of his off-field actions took away from his mission on improving his game: working on his footwork, reading defenses and throwing accuracy heading into his junior year.
“I think we’re in a really good place,” Lawrence said. “There’s been a lot going on and now, I think we’re in a spot where we can focus a little bit more on football.”
Lawrence is 25-1 as a starter, that loss in perhaps his worst showing in college when he was just 18 of 37 without a touchdown in a 42-25 loss to LSU in the national title game last January.
Lawrence won’t have some of the targets that helped him pass for 36 touchdowns last season. Receiver Tee Higgins left for the NFL while Justyn Ross, who would’ve been a junior this season, is out for the year after spinal fusion surgery.
Higgins and Ross combined for 21 touchdown catches and better than 50% of Lawrence’s 3,665 passing yards from a year ago.
Expect Etienne, who returned for his senior season instead of going pro, to pick up some of that load. Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, also running backs coach, said Etienne has steadily improved his pass catching and can play a bigger role out of the backfield.
Sophomore Joseph Ngata, a starting receiver, said the long, strange offseason gave him and teammates more time to work on themselves.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise in some ways,” he said. “We’ll see it.”
Tigers center Cade Stewart, one of four new starters along the offensive line, has grown antsy with the longer than normal fall camp. Clemson was supposed to open its season last Thursday night at Georgia Tech.
Stewart welcomes the routine of game week because it leads to finally getting back on the field.
“I think everyone’s super excited because that feeling of routine and normality,” he said. “That’s the reason we come here because of the structure.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25