Saturday, October 23, 2021

Clemson’s blueprint includes a Cinderella story on the gridiron and within the staff

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College football is a time-consuming sport for many, requiring rigorous schedules and training the entire offseason to prepare for a gauntlet of games on the gridiron each year. For Clemson, however, it seems nothing is too much for the junior-college transfer Desmond King, who on Saturday night became the top player in Clemson history with two interceptions and 12 tackles as the Tigers thumped Georgia Tech 56-21. For the Tigers, winning despite shooting themselves in the foot remains the norm.

Since Clemson became an elite football program under Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have been among the best teams in the nation, perennially contending for the National Championship. In 2017, Clemson set the FBS record for wins and was named the College Football Playoff and No 1 overall seed.

This season, however, Clemson lost two games and is currently out of the playoff race.

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This puts pressure on Swinney to win more games in the coming weeks.

Notably, Clemson took a 15-14 lead on Georgia Tech on Saturday night, when Malik Rosier threw an interception returned 19 yards for a touchdown by King. Then, the senior defensive back committed a penalty, giving the Yellow Jackets a second chance. Rosier led a 75-yard touchdown drive to put the game out of reach, with King seemingly done for the night.

To Clemson’s credit, there were plenty of opportunities for the Tigers to score in the second half, and came up short. But there was another potential turnover that wasn’t exploited against a Georgia Tech defense that entered the contest ranked 82nd in the nation.

The Yellow Jackets intercepted the ball at the Tigers’ 37-yard line late in the third quarter, but a holding penalty negated it as freshman Quinshad Davis came up to block what would have been a 29-yard touchdown run by Jordan Leggett.

Ali’ir Dabru Suh rushed for 98 yards on 19 carries and Georgia Tech got another first down when Dabo Swinney sent an injury timeout in the fourth quarter and called for King to return kickoffs. Yet the Tigers failed to capitalize on their young quarterback, Georgia Tech settled for a field goal, and the game was out of reach.

In addition to the criticism they took for the missed opportunity, there was another question surrounding King, as he was largely overlooked after struggling to hold onto a punt in the second quarter, allowing Darius Leonard to return it for a touchdown.

Naturally, Swinney and coaches shrugged off the mistake as being a product of King’s inexperience.

“It was his third punt of the night,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “If he had a future quarterback like we do here, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Venables and his assistants have the luxury of being cautious with freshmen and sophomores, as veteran athletes around them can play. In addition, the coaching staff can count on the Gatorade Carrier Car Challenge as an example of how to manage unheralded freshmen.

Clemson has carried that tradition and built off it. In doing so, Clemson’s coaches can defuse the criticism without ruining their long-term blueprint.

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Swinney is building a program to last for years, believing that quality freshman can mature and become stars while filling in the gaps in other positions, after two losses. Sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence is likely to start at quarterback against Syracuse this week and junior Wayne Gallman will play running back for the remainder of the season. Two freshmen will be available to give the team options at left tackle and cornerback on the weak side of the defense.

It’s a blueprint that Clemson employs across all five sports, and they’ve built a reputation for being a program that can overcome adversity.

This next postseason can’t come soon enough.

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