No. 5 Clemson focused on winning games, not defending title
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and his staff have been working for months to drill the good feelings from a national title out of the fifth-ranked Tigers.
''We aren't defending anything,'' Swinney says flatly . ''If we were like an NFL team had (New England quarterback) Tom Brady back for his 15th year, that would be one thing. But in college football, it is a new team.''
And one that sounds hungry to make its own mark, though many of the returning players only played a supporting role during the national championship run.
''We've got a windshield mentality,'' said safety Tanner Muse, one of 11 new starters when the fifth-ranked Tigers take on Kent State on Saturday. ''All we look forward to is the next game.''
That could be tested early in the opener. Much of the crowd will be in full-blown celebration mode as the school has a pre-game program remembering last year's title run. Center Justin Falcinelli, another new starter, was asked what it will be like to run down the hill before the game.
''Oh, wow, I hadn't thought about that,'' he said, smiling.
Once the game begins, fans will see a vastly different group than the one that left Tampa, Florida after a 35-31 victory over top-ranked Alabama to win the crown last January. Gone are some of the best playmakers in the game last year, including first-round draft picks in quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Mike Williams.
Kelly Bryant, a reserve the last two seasons, steps into Watson's cleats against Kent State. Swinney has said that every spot on field is under regular scrutiny to make sure players earn time on the field and Bryant understands he'll have to keep the offense moving forward to remain ''QB1.''
''A lot of eyes are on us,'' Bryant said. ''We accept the challenge and are ready to get it going.''
Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said most of the new faces have done the right things as backups to get ready for bigger roles.
''We've seen these guys prepare. We think these guys are ready,'' Scott said. ''Now that doesn't mean they aren't going to go out there and make mistakes, that's part of it especially in these early games. But they've put in the work.''
The questions will largely come on offense, which will see seven new starters including at tailback, tight end and two of the three receiving spots where Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud will take over for Williams and all-time receptions leader Artavis Scott.
The third starter is reliable Hunter Renfrow, a national championship her o whose 2-yard TD catch with a second left proved the winning points against the Crimson Tide.
Milan Richard will start at tight end for last year's senior Jordan Leggett. C.J. Fuller takes over for two-time 1,000-yard rusher Wayne Gallman and Falcinelli replaces senior leader Jay Guillermo at center.
The losses on defense are fewer, yet significant . The Tigers will be without defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, who led the team with 10.5 sacks, and linebacker Ben Boulware, the fiery, emotional leader of last year's defense.
Scott said with so many new starters, the Tigers did not get caught up in last year's glory.
''These guys have been waiting for their time,'' he said.
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell is happy to get back on the field after a long, exciting offseason. ''The fans, they love telling us how great last year was,'' he said laughing. ''We're focused on this year.''
That's just how Swinney wants it. His catchphrase, ''New team, same dream,'' has been on practice T-shirts and ingrained in the psyche of his players.
''We're a little anxious to get out there,'' said Bryant, the new starting quarterback. ''A lot of guys are trying to prove themselves.''
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