Deon Cain's turnaround began with a hard lesson

Swinney: Williams, Cain a heck of a combination (2:23)

Dabo Swinney calls Clemson wideout Mike Williams a "monster" and details how he and Deon Cain have helped each other grow after both missed last season's College Football Playoff. (2:23)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Clemson wide receiver Deon Cain was suspended for last year's national championship game against Alabama. But he didn't even watch it.

Too busy, he said. Was with his girlfriend. Phone was off all day.

And not playing just hurt too much.

"I wasn't there to play with my teammates," he said. "It was hard for me because I know how hard we worked that season and I know they needed me on that field."

They've got him now.

One year after he was abruptly suspended on the eve of the Orange Bowl semifinal for reportedly failing a drug test, Cain has earned his way back into Clemson's circle of trust, and coaches say his renewed dedication to the team is as solid as Howard's Rock. Cain now writes down his goals every morning when he wakes up. He prays to stay focused. He is always on time, often the first player to team meetings.

His comeback, though, isn't over.

Cain is from Tampa, home to the sport's biggest stage on Monday. He graduated from nearby Tampa Bay Technical High School, where he emerged as the No. 2 recruit at receiver in the 2015 class. He has about 12 tickets for his closest friends and family members to Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET on ESPN). Many others will cram in to tailgate and get as close to the scene as they possibly can.

"Just to be back in this environment, it's a great thing to be here with my friends and family and experiencing this with my teammates," he said. "I just love it. I'm just trying to embrace the moment."

It's a moment he has had to work for every day, considering the wrath Cain drew from coach Dabo Swinney at last year's Orange Bowl, where the Tigers beat No. 4 Oklahoma 37-17 to advance to the title game against Alabama.

"Our walk-ons scored more points than Oklahoma's team in the ballgame," Swinney said at the time. "I think that's a great message to a guy like Deon Cain. That sends a message that we can win without you, and hopefully he will do what he's got to do because at some point you have to grow up."

Cain is only a sophomore, so he still has a long way to grow, but Swinney gave him an ultimatum last season, and Cain has followed his lead. He was reinstated in May and now could be the X factor the Tigers' offense needs against a stingy Alabama defense. This presents a second chance for both Cain and Clemson against the Tide.

"I'm extremely proud of that young man," said co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who recruited Cain and has a close relationship with him. "He's just more appreciative of his opportunity. A lot of times when you're dealing with high-profile athletes that are told how great they are, they're allowed to get away with some things, so they don't necessarily understand. Their definition of right and wrong may not be the same definition of the rules and guidelines you have within your program."

As a true freshman last season, Cain was the Tigers' second-leading receiver. This season, he has nine touchdowns off the bench behind star Mike Williams. Over the course of Cain's career, he has averaged a touchdown catch on every 4.8 receptions, an all-time record pace at Clemson.

"These last couple of weeks he's been really, really focused," Elliott said. "He's had his eyes on the prize. I'm excited to get out there and find ways to get him opportunities with the football so he can put on a show in his hometown."

It would certainly punctuate his turnaround from a year ago.

"I definitely knew it was going to be a big challenge for him," said Jeff Scott, the co-offensive coordinator. "The easiest thing for him would've been to transfer from Clemson. Being as highly recruited as he was and coming out having a really good freshman year, people would've been standing in line to be the school to give Deon a second chance. I think for him it would've probably been easier because he wouldn't have to face everything he was going to have to face at Clemson and the constant scrutiny and everybody looking at him making sure he's doing the right thing. But that would've been the easy way out."

The hard way was lined with support.

At the beginning of the summer, defensive end Christian Wilkins approached Swinney and told him he wanted to be roommates with Cain. The two had been friends before, but their bond is even greater now.

"Going through what he's gone through last year, I was just hoping I could be a good teammate for him," Wilkins said. "If he needed anything, if he needed any help, I was just going to be there for him, not to judge him in any way, just to be a good friend for him. We need Deon. I want the best for him as a teammate and a brother. I want him to go and do great things."

"Christian is a great person," Cain said. "I learned a lot from him, his work ethic and all that."

Cain also spent much more time meeting with Scott, Elliott and coach Dabo Swinney, and once or twice a week, he met with team psychologist Milt Lowder.

"[Lowder] played a big part in my redemption," Cain said.

One of the quotes Lowder said he gave Cain was from Albert Einstein, who said we can't solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them. Lowder also asked Cain to look ahead and figure out who he wanted to be later in life.

"That was my favorite thing we did together," Lowder said. "Deon made a picture in his mind of who he wanted to be and what he wanted to accomplish, and once he figured that out, he was willing to sacrifice every day to make it happen.

"Deon had to make a choice about what he wanted. He's always been a young man who was determined, who was focused and had a great support system, but I saw in that moment following last year that he made a choice to be great. He was willing to sacrifice and give up what he wanted in that moment for what he wanted most. He set a new vision."

Last year, on the day of the national title game, Cain eventually checked the final score. It wasn't until this summer, though, that he watched the game in its entirety.

"It made me appreciate my opportunity more," he said, "and to give more effort than I've ever gave."

For Clemson and Cain, this national title game is all about a second chance.