CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has turned the page on last year's national championship. He believes his players have done the same.
The Tigers opened preseason practice Friday as presumptive favorites to once more win the Atlantic Coast Conference and return to the College Football Playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. But Swinney cautioned his latest young group — two-thirds of the 120 players on the are freshmen or sophomores — have much work ahead to win a third national crown in four seasons.
"Our program has won 15 (games) in a row," Swinney said. "This team hasn't won one."
Swinney reinforced the message with his players the past two days, prepping them in Clemson's culture and his expectations for conduct on an off the field moving forward.
"This is kind of business as usual every time we show up to play," he said.
One of the biggest things to find for Clemson this preseason are leaders. The Tigers' "Power Ranger" defensive front four were all drafted — end Clelin Ferrell and tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence were all NFL first-round picks — leaving a void on the team who counted on their character and determination to pull them through difficult times.
Wilkins, for instance, took then freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence out to breakfast a couple of days after well-respected starter Kelly Bryant chose to leave after the newcomer was elevated to starter four games into last season. Swinney said the Tigers don't yet have.
"We've got to be unbelievable teachers this year," Swinney said.
It helps to have the strong-armed Lawrence leading the way.
Lawrence, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound sophomore, stayed calm and cool throughout the storm of Bryant's transfer to complete the first 15-0 season in modern college football. He's added definition to his long, blonde hair and cannon arm. Swinney said Lawrence has also added leadership to his tool box.
"The biggest thing I want to see, I've already seen," Swinney said. "To assert himself as a leader, not just of the offense, but of this team."
Lawrence led the way during drills, moving smoothly around barriers and lofting tight spirals from about 30 yards away after a one-step drop.
"Good, good," quarterback coach Brandon Streeter said, nodding his head at Lawrence.
Lawrence has plenty of help in the attack. Tailback Travis Etienne was the ACC offensive player of the year last season and led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 24 rushing touchdowns. Receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross were sure-handed pass catchers who combined for 105 catches, 1,936 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Ross, the lean, 6-4 sophomore, was a revelation in the playoffs with 12 catches for 301 yards and three TDs in blowout victories over Notre Dame and Alabama.
"The sky's the limit" on offense, Lawrence said. "We just have to put in the work to be where we want to be."
If there's a pressure point for the Tigers early, it looks on defense. Along with its front four, Clemson lost three other starters including top cornerback Trayvon Mullen who was a second-round NFL draft pick by Oakland.
Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables believe there's a host of talented defenders who haven't yet had the chance to make a mark. Defensive end Xavier Thomas, who had the crunching hit on Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey to secure a comeback win over the Orange last year, is expected to pick up much of the pass rushing slack of Ferrell.
Veterans Jordan Williams and Nyles Pickney figure to fill the middle of the line that Wilkins and Lawrence had protected during Clemson's CFP run.
Venables wants to see much more of camp before he anoints anyone as the defensive leader. "Not sure if we have an alpha dog in our front seven," he said.
Pinckney said the defense is steadily finding its way since offseason workouts began in January. He's ready to lead after seeing the example set by his past teammates. "I just feel like we're putting in a lot of extra work," he said. "And if you're having a bad day, not to take it out on your teammates, just pick it up the next day."
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