Press Conference: Clemson at the 2017 #ACCKickoff
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and players Christian Wilkins and Tyrone Crowder talk with the media at the 2017 ACC Kickoff.
DABO SWINNEY: Thank you. Good afternoon. Hope y’all are all hanging in there. It’s been a long day for all of us. But hopefully everybody has had a lot of fun talking about ACC football. It’s always fun for me to come to this event because that means that the season is upon us, and that’s my favorite time of year, getting back to where we’re around these guys every day and where we’re kind of all coming back together. Everybody has been working hard since spring to prepare for this season, so it’s getting closer by the minute.
But it’s been a great day today. I’ve enjoyed visiting with everyone and talking about this year’s team just a little bit. Everybody keeps wanting to talk about last year and what we don’t have, but what I’m excited about is what we do have. And we’ve got a football team that I think is committed, a football team that I think is focused, and a football team that I think is hungry, because we’ve got a lot of guys that nobody talks about.
Because again, we keep talking about those guys that aren’t with us anymore, which that’s kind of understandable, but we’ve got a lot of guys that are really hungry to go prove that they can get the job done. We’re excited about getting going, and we’re going to come in on the 1st. We’ve got a couple days of program installation type meetings and core values and those type things, and then we’ll start practice on the 3rd.
But with that, I’ll take your questions.
Q. Christian, you had 10 pass breakups last year as a defensive tackle. I did some research. I couldn’t find another non-DB who had more than eight. How do you get your hands on the ball so much?
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: Really what I think about is being disruptive on every play, however that can happen. Initially stopping the run, that’s my first thought, and stopping the pass, getting to the quarterback, but I mean, if I can’t do that, I’ve just got to try to disrupt the play in any way I can, when it’s a tougher time to rush or based off the pass protection, and trying to get my hands up. It’s all about knowing football. If you pick up things on the game plan, if you know the team’s tendencies and things like that, it’s easier to get your hands on the ball. If you know a team likes to throw the ball to a receiver on 3rd and short or on a slant or something, it’s easier to get your hands up.
Q. Christian, what can you say not only about yourself but also Dexter Lawrence on the interior, how dangerous you are.
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: Yeah, I`m really looking forward to what me and Dexter are able to do. There`s a lot of talk about that, but we both know we`ve got to put in the work. There’s a lot of — we both have a lot of potential and we both haven’t reached our fullest potential yet as football players, and I’m pushing him every day and he’s pushing me. And not only us, but everybody else on the D-line, Cle, Austin, all the other power Rangers on the D-line. I’m pushing them to be their best and they’re all pushing me to be my best, as well.
Q. How do you translate what you experienced last year to the kids coming into the program who did not have that experience?
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: Well, it’s simple. You’ve got to let them know early that we didn’t just luck up on a National Championship. It’s not an easy route. It’s not an easy path. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of preparation in and out, each and every day, and you’ve got to be ready for — you’ve got to be ready for each and every game, and this is a tough league, too. The ACC is the best league in college football, and you can get beat each and every day, so you’ve really got to be on it because you never know.
If you’re off one game, you could definitely lose that game. It’s very easy to do so in this league, and you’ve just really got to show them that the hard work is the only way to go. Hard work is the only path.
Q. Christian, last year obviously the motivation was get back to the title game and win it, so you did that. So now this year what’s the mantra?
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: Well, really what I think it is personally and what I’m trying to convey to the rest of the team and just encourage guys what to think or how to think is it was a greater accomplishment to reach one National Championship and win that, but really just why not win two. We shouldn’t get complacent because we won one. There’s still more out there for us. If we want to be a good team, want to be good competitors, want to be good athletes, we can never get complacent and be satisfied with whatever we did, no matter how good it is. There’s always room to improve, and there’s always more out there for us, and we can definitely get better from last year because we weren’t perfect even though we did win the National Championship.
Q. One of the things that I like the most about you is your exuberance out on the field. You rush down when your teammates score a touchdown. You’re out there on special teams. Is that just the love of the game? Is that you being a leader?
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: A lot of it is just pure emotion. I just get so excited watching my teammates succeed and do their thing on the field, and I just genuinely love being a good teammate. I know that gets other guys excited just to see me rush down, so I’m going to continue to do it, and I love to do it. Like I said, I get excited for my teammates when they make good plays, and I want more good plays to keep happening. I don’t care how many touchdowns we score, I don’t care how many big plays we make, I’m going to do it every time. I get — I burn more energy doing that than just on the play-to-play basis.
Q. You see more and more teams that push the tempo and then Syracuse wants to push the tempo even more. You big guys on the defensive line, how do you contend with somebody that wants to play really, really fast?
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: Well, really it just starts at the beginning of the week with the game plan. You know, usually Coach B does a good job of getting down a team’s tendency about how fast a team may or may not want to go and he’ll stress all week the game plan. If a team likes to go fast, he’s firing off plays, play after play after play, and we don’t get chance to get a break and stop to go over plays, things like that. So we just get prepared. A lot of it is the install in the summer, just getting yourself physically into shape, getting in good shape, just grinding as hard as you can now and in the off-season so that you`re prepared for anything in the season when it comes.
Q. Christian, you are a leader obviously on and off the field, especially on defense. What’s going to be your biggest focus on defense as players like Tre Lamar replace Ben Boulware?
CHRISTIAN WILKINS: Really just making sure they’re as comfortable as they can be out there. Just me being a leader now on the team, I’ve just got to remind guys who maybe have not played as much or guys who are looking to fill roles and fill spots that there’s a reason they’re at Clemson. They came here because they have the talent and the ability, and just make them feel confident and comfortable in their own abilities. That can hold a lot of weight coming from a guy like me on the team, just knowing that I believe in them, I trust them, that they’re here for a reason, so just definitely instilling that confidence in themselves.
Q. Tyrone, you’ve always seemed like kind of a lead-by-example type of guy, kind of quiet out there. You’re following a couple of offensive linemen in Mac Lain and Guillermo that were very gregarious personalities. How would you describe your leadership style, and who do you see in the offensive line room following those guys in a leadership role?
TYRONE CROWDER: For me it`s kind hard to replace those guys. Obviously Jay, he was a very vocal guy, very friendly guy. For me I kind of lead by example, but I’m trying to step up to that role as being a more vocal leader, and I’m trying to transition just to be a complete player. But I think that Justin Falcinelli, I really like what I’m seeing this off-season. He’s competing — he`s showing that he belongs there.
Q. Clemson’s defensive line is, deservedly so, getting a lot of attention here in the preseason, but the offensive line, four returning starters, six or seven guys that have played a lot. Do you feel like the offensive line is being overlooked, and you’ve been there a while now, do you feel like maybe this would be Clemson’s best line since you’ve been at Clemson?
TYRONE CROWDER: Yes, I feel like this is definitely Clemson’s best offensive line, but whether or not people believe it or not, it doesn’t matter to me. Our job is just to be the very best that we can be and just grind this off-season and get ready for the season.
Q. Not only with yourself but returning three other starters on that offensive line, just what you can say about the veteran leadership and having been through the trenches last year en route to a National Championship, just what that means for this year.
TYRONE CROWDER: Just having been there before, just it brings a lot of experience, and we know what to expect. We have other guys like Mitch Hyatt, Taylor Hearn, and we just keep on going, and we take these younger guys under our wings.
Q. You lost a couple of key members off of last year’s offense, but with Deshaun being kind of the face of the program and such a difference maker on and off the field, what’s been the biggest difference this off-season not having that singular important guy around the program this year?
TYRONE CROWDER: I mean, obviously it’s hard to replace a guy like Deshaun, but we’ve got a group of core players who want to prove themselves that this is why they came here, to be that guy. Everybody has their own different roles, but we recruit the best in the country, and we’ve got players out there, and I’m just looking forward to seeing what they can do.
Q. Tell me about Coach Caldwell and the toughness he’s instilled in you guys to be every bit as good as Christian and those guys across from you and how that’s helped build you guys up so good in the trenches and makes you such a tough football program.
TYRONE CROWDER: Coach Caldwell, he’s different. He expects the best from us, but he loves us. He coaches hard every day. He loves us. He gets on us a lot, but in the end, he tells us the only reason I get on you is because I want you to be the best, and I know you can be that guy. He’s just a great coach.
Q. The commissioner mentioned as the league and everyone transitioned to the College Football Playoff from the BCS that you spoke about the need to step up, to win big games, to schedule a tough non-conference. What do you recall about that, and how do you think that kind of that rallying cry has been answered?
DABO SWINNEY: If I remember correctly, that was probably maybe five or six years ago or so. But we were just — we were talking about scheduling and things like that, and my message was, listen, we’ve got to go play people, and we’ve got to beat them. The only way we’re going to change the story lines that — five, six, seven years ago the story lines were always the same about this league. I mean, there’s no sense in complaining about it, let’s go — if we want to change it, we’ve got to go play people and we’ve got to beat them. When we do that, then we’ve got to start writing something different. That was really kind of what I said at that time, and I think that we’ve been able to do that.
I mean, even just this year, if you look at this league, there’s one conference that had a winning record versus Power Five teams, the ACC. One conference had a winning record versus ranked teams, the ACC. We had 11 bowl teams. We were 10-4 versus the SEC. There’s a reason why we have played so well. We’ve won five bowl games in a row, and you know, I mean, it’s not because I’m some great coach. I’ve got a good staff and all that. We’ve had good players. It’s what we practice against every day, and it’s what we play against week in and week out.
So when we’ve got into postseason, we’ve not been overwhelmed, we’ve been able to match up. But you can’t just do that one time. Nobody is going to really give you credit for that. It’s the consistency over the last several years that I think really speaks the loudest because we’ve been incredibly consistent in a lot of areas. We’ve won a bunch of big games as a conference, certainly as a program, but as a conference. You know, I don’t think this league has ever been better. It’s the deepest it’s ever been. Incredible coaches in this league. I mean, really, really good coaches, and every single week you’d better come to play. Then it’s the same — and for us, you’d better show up to practice. If you’re Crowder and you’re going to have to block Christian Wilkins in practice, you’d better show up, otherwise you’re going to get exposed. That’s good for us as a program, and then also to be able to show up on game day and play a quality team from this league I think is the reason why we’ve been so successful in the postseason.
Q. Dave Clawson talked about playing in the best division, in the best conference. You and Florida State have occupied the penthouse now for about eight or nine years. Do you see the other schools in your division moving to higher ground, getting closer to the penthouse? Do you think we’ll see crazy upsets in the Coastal? Is that day coming in the Atlantic? I know you hope not.
DABO SWINNEY: Well, it ain’t real far from the penthouse to the outhouse. We all know that. It’s a few plays here and there, and that’s really where this league is. But, in particular, if you’re going to speak about our division, I have great respect for the coaches and the teams in our division. It is incredibly difficult.
Yes, I guess since I’ve been in the league or since I’ve been the head coach, it’s either been us or Florida State representing the Atlantic. But man, Louisville, the type of team that they are, NC State, really good, talented football team. I know they’ve got a bunch of seniors back this year. I think Dave Clawson has done an incredible job at Wake Forest in rebuilding them and reestablishing their program, getting them to a bowl game last year. He’s done a great job.
This division is tough. Boston College, man, you talk about a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team that you’re going to see when you line up and play Boston College, and then Syracuse and Dino, what a great football coach he is. So good for our league. It’s not going to take him long to get Syracuse where they want to be as a program. You just mark that down. They are a very, very difficult team to prepare for and play against.
It’s a strong, strong division from top to bottom. Obviously Florida State and what they are year in and year out. But again, I think that’s what we want. We want to be a great league, and I think all of us coaches take pride in that, and we all — Jimbo will tell you the same thing. It’s a real fine line, and that competitive balance in our division has grown tighter and tighter every year.
Q. Guy we covered a lot in high school, Dexter Lawrence. Some have said when he’s ready to become draft eligible, he could become the No. 1 overall pick, and where have you seen his growth as a football player from the time he stepped on campus, and I’m not talking about girth.
DABO SWINNEY: Well, fortunately he hasn’t grown much girth. He showed up big. I’ve had some guys leave our program that looked like him, but I haven’t had many show up that looked like him. Just a very gifted young person. He’s been at Clemson for right at one year now. He came about this time last year for the second summer session, and he’s been incredibly impactful since he got there. He’s a great young man, first of all. I mean, just has a great spirit to him. You know, doesn’t say a whole lot, but has a very fun personality, and just went to work and competed, and shoot, he made an impact game 1 at Auburn with some big plays.
But I’ve never seen a guy that size move like him. When Christian showed up, Christian was kind of like, wow, this guy is different, too. But Christian wasn’t 340 pounds. This is a 340-pound man. I think he was about 19 percent body fat when he first got there. Benched 225. I think when he showed up, he was about 30 reps. So pretty good starting point that we had to go to work with, and Coach Bates and our strength staff and our nutrition staff, they’ve done an unbelievable job of taking him from there. But he had a great first year, and his teammates love him.
Having he and Christian inside gives us a dynamic duo for sure, so hopefully the good Lord will keep those guys healthy, because if they’re healthy for the course of this season, we’re going to be tough in the trenches. There’s no doubt about it, because both of them have good football IQ’s. That’s the other thing about Dexter: Very, very smart. Very coachable. Corrects his mistakes and plays with a great motor. He’s a guy that has a high care for his performance.
And I give Christian a lot of credit because he had something to kind of look at when he got there because Christian had kind of already paved that way for him, and Christian is a worker. You know, he’s out there after practice every day. He practices hard. He’s a coachable kid. He’s not a guy that’s going to take — pick his spots. He’s going to bring it every day. He’s going to compete. And I think that was a good example coming in for a young guy like Dexter to kind of see.
So great freshman year. He’s played 15 games, so he’s kind of a sophomore and a half, if you will, to this point, and expect big things from him this year. Also an honor roll student.
Q. You just talked a lot about your defensive line. Can you just talk about Jordan Williams, a guy from Virginia Beach who’s come in? What do you expect for him to learn from some of these older guys, and also, what do you expect for him to bring to this defensive line?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, we’re really excited about Jordan. We signed two D-linemen, he and Justin Foster from up here in North Carolina. Excited about both of these young men. I was actually just talking to Christian about Jordan last night on the plane. Christian was just kind of telling me how impressed he was with those freshmen, and Jordan is well-coached, well-prepared, and he’s one of those guys, obviously haven’t been on the field with him yet, but one of those guys that’s going to get a real opportunity early. We’re going to be talented but young in our depth at defensive end, and he’s a guy that I think will have a chance to fill in.
But just listening to Christian last night talk about him, sounds like he’s going to be a guy that we’re going to be excited about when we get on the practice field with him.
Q. Jeff was talking in Tampa about how gratifying it was that it had gotten to a point where high school coaches of quality kids were approaching y’all; could you talk a little about how the recruiting process has changed over the last few years and the houses you get into now and the way that Clemson football might be perceived along the trail differently than it might have five or seven years ago?
DABO SWINNEY: It’s changed a lot. You know, I had to beg Tajh Boyd to let me come see him, try to just get in his house and try to lay out a vision for what we were wanting to build at Clemson, whereas now, as our brand has grown and we’ve had success, we’re going to at least get a conversation. You know, they’re going to at least take the call or we’re going to get in the school and they’re going to come and see us. That’s really helped us a ton because we’ve got a special place here, and when people come and visit, it sells itself. That’s the biggest thing. If we can get guys on campus, we know that we’re going to get our fair share of the right guys.
That’s been the biggest change is a lot of people, not only do they take our call or we get the visit, a lot of people are calling us. We have young men from all over the country now that would have never called us that want to come see Clemson, and I think that’s pretty cool. But at the end of the day, it’s not just getting players and filling your class. It’s getting the right guys. That’s really where the success comes from is getting the right guys that fit your culture, the philosophy of the program, that love football, their heart is in it, and they’re guys that you’re not going to have to chase to the weight room, guys that are truly committed to being a young person of excellence in everything that they do.
You know, we wouldn’t have got a Christian Wilkins seven years ago, but because of our success, you know, we reach out to a guy and he’s like, yeah, I’d love to come see Clemson. And all of a sudden he comes and sees it, and he’s like, wow, I like this place, and then he goes to other schools, and he ends upcoming to Clemson.
I think that’s the biggest difference from where we were obviously when we started, because now we can go out and we can — we’ve got some results that we can share about the vision of our program and the academic success, the athletic success, the development, as opposed to eight years ago it was, this is what we hope to go do and build.
Q. Coach, what was it like seeing Virginia Tech become a contender for an ACC title again, and what’s it going to be like going back to Blacksburg this year after it’s been a few years?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I think the last time we were up there was 2011, I believe, and it’s not surprising at all to see Virginia Tech back in the championship game. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Fuente. He is a great football coach, and I almost hired him myself in 2011. I knew that he was destined for great things, and when he got that Virginia Tech job — in fact, I told the AD, I saw him at one of the meetings, I said, man, you think you hired a good guy, but I’m telling you, you hired a great football coach. He’ll do a heck of a job at Virginia Tech, with the great resources they have there, the passion of their fan base. I wasn’t surprised at all. They’re a tough football team, and even tougher up there. Been up there a couple times. That’s a really, really difficult place to play, and will certainly be a big challenge for us early, I guess September when we go up there.
Q. I read in your media guide here, your preseason guide, you guys are losing 78 percent of your production on offense. —
DABO SWINNEY: What are we going to do? Oh, man.
Q. What are you going to do? How do you replace that? How do you do that and get back to another National Championship game?
DABO SWINNEY: You recruit. You go recruiting. That’s what you do. You don`t sit around and pout about it. That’s just the nature of college football. I think that’s what makes college football so exciting and so much fun. It’s different. Guys, there’s change every year. It’s a new team. You know, when Tajh Boyd was gone, it was, how are you going to replace Tajh Boyd. Well, we went and got a guy named Deshaun Watson. He did okay. When Vic Beasley left, oh, my God, how are you going to replace Vic Beasley. Well, we got a guy named Clelin Ferrell, he did all right last year. Nobody knew about him this time last year. How are you going to replace Grady Jarrett. Well, we went and got Christian Wilkins.
You go recruit, and then you develop your players. And I think that’s probably one of the things that we do best is we develop our players, so when guys get their opportunity, they’re prepared. I can give you example after example after example, whether it was a Kevin Dodd, a guy like that, or a Vic Beasley who developed and as a redshirt junior becomes a starter for the first time. We prepare those guys. That’s why Wayne Gallman has gone to the Giants now. But we’ve got three good backs that are ready. We lost Leggett, and Leggett was a mainstay for us, but we’ve got good tight ends. We lost Mike Williams, but we got some pretty good players coming back. I’ve got a guy named Deon Cain that’s played at a high level for us. It’s kind of his time. So it’s just next man up.
And if you recruit well and you develop well, then you can sustain consistency, which is really what we’re trying to do is just be a consistently competitive program that’s in position to compete for this conference, because if we can compete for this conference year in and year out, hey, we’re going to have those years where we get it done.
So I love our roster. I love the fact that you make a comment like that because that’s fuel. That’s that edge that some of those guys need. Nobody is asking me about Deon Cain yet. This is one of the best receivers in the country. He’s had unbelievable moments. Not one word. We’re talking about a guy that’s gone, and I’m focused on the guys that are here.
I think we’ve got — it’s a very fair question because it’s a lot of production, and I think that’s the natural thing to do is you just look at a piece of paper and you say, wow, and you don’t know these guys. But come mid-season, you’re going to know a lot of these guys, and by the end of the season, we’re not going to be talking about all those guys that aren’t here anymore. If we are, we’re going to be talking about how good they’re doing at the next level, because we’ve got good players that are ready to emerge, and we’ll be a team that’s led in the trenches. We’ve got everybody back in the offensive line except one guy. We’ve got all of our starters back up front except Carlos. We’ll be all right. We’ll be just fine.