Clemson safety Jayron Kearse already has his goals set for this upcoming season, and he is not shy about sharing.
"I have one word to sum it up, and it's Thorpe," Kearse said in a phone interview.
As in Thorpe Award, given annual to the best defensive back in the country. Of course, straight talk is nothing new from defensive backs, who are regularly known for their outsized confidence and swagger. Kearse has been known to say a thing or two himself. But his comments leave little room for interpretation. He knows how much not only his coaches are expecting out of him, but how much he is expecting out of himself.
His time is now, as one of the most experienced players returning on a defense eager to maintain the standard it set a season ago. Coaches rave about his athleticism, and he is now being asked to do much more, from juggling both safety positions to having a role in the dime package and various others. So far, he has had one of the better springs on defense, with interceptions in the first two scrimmages and a chance for more in the spring game Saturday.
"I feel like I've been pretty productive this spring, with just trying to learn everything," Kearse said. "I think I've done pretty good playing all over the field, doing whatever I have to do help. They're putting a whole bunch on my shoulders, so I feel I have the opportunity to make way more pays than I did last season. They're putting their trust in me to go out there and be a good player on the field."
Kearse arrived at Clemson after a ballyhooed career in Fort Myers, Florida, where he attended the same high school as Sammy Watkins. His uncle, Jevon Kearse, played at Florida; cousin Phillip Buchanon played at Miami. Though many schools recruited him as a receiver, Clemson coaches gave him a choice: Do you want to play receiver or safety? Kearse chose safety.
"I'd rather be hitting than getting hit," Kearse said.
That is one explanation. His famous family members are another.
"Just having those guys in my corner and telling me the ins and outs, I feel like I had a better opportunity to do what I wanted to do for my ultimate goal on the defensive side of the ball," he said.
His production has increased since he played as a freshman in 2013. Last season, Kearse started 12 games, with 67 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. To get even better, Kearse said his focus on the offseason will be working on tracking the ball in the air, making sure he has proper position with technique and becoming a better tackler in open space.
"I definitely feel like the sky's the limit for me," he said. "I'm going out this season expecting to be a Thorpe candidate, just be the best secondary player in the nation. I feel I have the ability to do those types of things. I have to get on the field and back it up. I have the opportunity to do that and the ability to do that."