CLEMSON - Most seasons, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney feels excited about his Tigers' chances. He's got more reasons than ever with his latest group.
Clemson opened practice Friday with 57 juniors or seniors, the most Swinney has ever had. They include four potential first-round NFL draft picks on the defensive line in tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant, a senior, is back after leading Clemson to its third straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship last year and another spot in the College Football Playoff. There are seniors starting at linebacker and three juniors leading the secondary. All five offensive linemen are upperclassmen.
In all, 17 of the 22 starters on the depth chart heading into fall camp are juniors or older.
"A very veteran group," Swinney said. "They're focused. This is not a nonchalant, casual group. This is a very locked-in group that I really believe knows exactly what they want."
Their mission seems clear, particularly after the disappointing conclusion to last year - a 24-6 loss to eventual champion Alabama in the national semifinals. The goal to improve on that showing has motivated the Tigers throughout the offseason and into fall camp.
"That's where we're at," linebacker Kendall Joseph said. "ACC (title), bowl game and national championship. That's the goal. Nothing short of that."
Swinney is grateful for his team's experience, yet says even his oldest players must prepare to work each day at practice if they expect success when the season begins.
"We've got to go out and earn it on the field every day," he said.
Clemson's done a strong job of that throughout the past few seasons. The Tigers went 40-4 the previous three years, which included going 14-1 and topping the Crimson Tide for the national title after the 2016 season.
Clemson figured to have several more question marks heading into the season since much of its starting defensive line had NFL decisions to make last January. In Swinney's first win of the season, all three starters (Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant ) who could have left returned for another go-round in college.
It was a spirited group that hit the field for workouts Friday evening, with much of the attention focused on the quarterbacks. Bryant led the way for the offense with five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence right behind at No. 2 on the depth chart.
Lawrence, a 6-foot-5 passer whose flowing blond hair poked through his helmet, was the country's top quarterback prospect after breaking the Georgia state passing marks with 13,908 yards and 161 TDs - records that were previously held by Clemson national championship hero Deshaun Watson.
Lawrence moved easily through drills and showed off his power arm with tight spirals and long passes into the receivers' chests.
Swinney has said Bryant enters camp as the starter, but like everyone else, he must perform strongly to keep his spot.
Receiver Hunter Renfrow believes Clemson can succeed no matter who the starting quarterback is. Both Bryant and Lawrence have abilities that could help the Tigers this season.
"There's a lot of excitement," Renfrow said. "We're just anxious to get the season going."
Swinney, the former Alabama walk-on receiver, spent much of the early part of practice with the Tigers' receivers. The coach demonstrated getting off the line quickly and efficiently, and how to make an explosive juke to move past defensive backs. "It's the best move in football," Swinney shouted to the group he led.
Swinney said his veterans are assets that will serve the Tigers well. They understand and can spread the program's culture and values to younger players still trying to find their way.
"They have a lot of knowledge, and it's fun to sit in that room," Swinney said. "They know what we need to do, they know what it takes, they're committed to that. So it really, really helps in the locker room, in the dining hall, on the bus, on the practice field, in the meeting room, whatever, with your message."
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