CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — For a coach with several huge offensive holes to fill, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney sounded like someone without a lot to worry about.
Swinney’s Tigers entered fall camp Friday without two of their most important and dominant stars of the past few seasons in NFL first-rounders in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne.
But there was the 51-year-old Swinney, discussing his 40th year of football as a player and coach and confident his offense won’t miss a beat this fall.
“One thing I can tell you is it never gets old,” said Swinney, a wide grin as he spoke.
Lawrence and Etienne were two of the most prominent faces in the college game the past few years and accounted for the past three Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year awards (Etienne in 2018 and 2019, Lawrence last fall).
Lawrence was 34-2 in his three seasons as the starter, his lone losses coming to LSU in the 2019 title game and to Ohio State in last season’s national semifinal.
Etienne broke several ACC marks including the career rushing record of former North Carolina State great Ted Brown that stood for more than four decades.
Swinney believes that Clemson has the talent at both positions to keep clicking toward a seventh straight ACC title and College Football Playoff berth.
Sophomore passer D.J. Uiagalelei proved a stellar replacement when Lawrence missed two games last fall after contracting COVID-19.
Uiagalelei rallied the Tigers from 18-points behind Boston College in the second half for a 42-38 victory. Still starting a week later at Notre Dame as Lawrence recovered from the virus, Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards — the most ever against the Fighting Irish — in the Tigers 47-40 overtime loss.
Swinney thinks Uiagalelei has only deepened his knowledge of the offense and his hold on the team as starting quarterback.
“He was way ahead last year from a typical freshman,” Swinney said of his new starter. “His whole mindset is different. His maturity, his leadership role, I’ve seen him assert himself a lot better.”
Uiagalelei was clearly in control as the Tigers began workouts Friday. He smoothly led the first-team offense through drills, accurately finding his receivers throughout the sessions.
“He’s excited about the opportunity and we are, too,” Swinney said.
Right now, there’s no clear choice as Etienne’s replacement as the featured back. Senior Lyn-J Dixon was the primary backup the past three seasons and stuck around when Etienne chose to pass up the NFL and play his senior year in 2020.
Along with Dixon are a host of eager, talented runners looking to fill the gap and make their mark on the program like junior Michael Dukes, sophomore Kobe Pace and five-star freshman Will Shipley.
First-year running backs coach C.J. Spiller thinks it will take a group effort from the tailbacks this fall.
“Having just that one lead dog, I don’t think we need that,” said Spiller, the ACC player of year for Clemson in 2009. “It’s going to take a collective effort from everybody here. In years past you always had Travis, but I think as running backs, it’s going to take multiple guys for us to be successful.”
Clemson got a boost with Justyn Ross’ medical clearance to return to football after missing 2020 due to a congenital fusion condition of his neck and spine that required surgery.
Ross was the offensive MVP of Clemson’s 2018 national title win over Alabama and has caught 112 passes for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in his two seasons.
Ross, however, is in COVID-19 protocols and likely won’t join the team for practices before the end of next week. “We know what we’ve got with him,” Swinney said.
Swinney has said often that Clemson’s track record of developing players through the years has been key to their run of ACC and national success (national titles in 2016 and 2018). He is anxious to watch Uiagalelei lead the latest generation of offensive standouts.
“It’s awesome to have a talent like that. That’s not just starting from scratch,” Swinney said. “He’s already had a year under his belt, and he’s the guy.”