Dabo Swinney walked into his first official team meeting in January, looked around the room and had a flashback to the same moment from the previous year.
Clemson's head coach had stepped forward to address players coming off a riveting national championship game to close out the 2016 season. Except many of the key players from that game were no longer there. Instead, Swinney saw six scholarship seniors and many young players looking back at him. He took a deep breath and thought to himself, "We've got a lot of work to do."
The way Clemson grew up throughout the 2017 season is a big reason why the Tigers unexpectedly made it back to the College Football Playoff despite losing Deshaun Watson, Ben Boulware and many others.
Though they lost 24-6 to Alabama in the semifinals, Swinney said in a recent interview, "If you'd have told me, 'Hey we’re going to be 12-2 and win our third straight conference title and go to the playoff again and come up a little short against Alabama,' I would have signed up for that, because we had a lot of work to. We were a long way from that last spring."
That brings us back to the meeting last month. Swinney saw Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, Kelly Bryant and Mitch Hyatt -- 15 returning starters in all -- and a team that looks like a surefire bet to be among the preseason favorites to make it back to the playoff. There is no uneasiness with spring practice set to open Wednesday, only excitement about the Tigers' vast potential.
"We're out of the gate very, very strong," Swinney said. "It's the body language, it's what you're hearing from the weight room, it's the new accountability teams we've built, it's those little subliminal things you see in January, and this group has been on point. There’s a lot of hunger to this group.
"You have a lot of guys who came back, and they didn't come back to be nonchalant, tiptoe through the deal. These guys have 10 months left to their careers. They're like, 'We came back No. 1 to get better, No. 2 to go have a great year.'"
Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell all passed up opportunities to enter the NFL draft because they were unhappy with their grades as possible second-round picks. Add in rising junior Dexter Lawrence and the formidable Clemson defensive front should once again be the best in the nation, with all four potentially being named to preseason All-America teams.
Those talented starters are not the only reason Clemson has been so effective up front. When the Tigers are at their best, they have a strong rotation among the defensive linemen, and this spring will be big toward achieving that, with early enrollees Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry, Josh Belk and Darnell Jeffries eager to join the mix.
But the story this spring centers on the offense and returning starting quarterback Kelly Bryant. Clemson was not as explosive on offense a year ago, but Swinney says some of that was a function of how well the Tigers played defensively. More is expected from the offense with players like Bryant, Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster, Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and, of course, Hunter Renfrow, back for his senior year.
Bryant enters spring as the starter, but the spotlight turns to early enrollee Trevor Lawrence, the No. 2 prospect in the ESPN 300. Redshirt freshman Hunter Johnson, another former ESPN 300 talent, also will get his fair share of reps, along with Chase Brice.
"I don't promise anybody anything. Trevor committed after other guys were already here," Swinney said. "These guys are all confident and they just want to go to work. They all understand they're going to get better. I tell them, 'Were you a better player as a senior than you were as a freshman in high school? Yeah. Well why is that? Knowledge, development, experience, confidence, more swag, whatever it may be; it's not going to be any different in college.' They understand the best guy's going to play, whomever that may be."
No matter what happens in spring, there is an entire summer and fall camp until final decisions are made. But at this point, the returning talent on the roster alone is enough to send preseason expectations soaring once again.
"We'll have a shot," Swinney said. "On paper, there's no question we've got a team that knows what it takes and has the right leadership. Now can we put the chemistry that we need together, can we develop the proper depth that we need? Because all those things are factors."