From where Jayron Kearse stands, from what he understands, the questions are outlandish.
Kearse is one of merely three starters returning to the Clemson University defense. The unit closed last season ranked first in the NCAA Division I Bowl Subdivision in total defense.
Then, it lost its entire starting front line and six of its top eight tacklers. Nevertheless, Kearse asserted that no one should doubt Clemson’s ability to remain the nation’s top defense.
“They ain’t ask nobody else these questions,” Kearse, a junior safety from Fort Myers, Florida, said Tuesday evening after the first day of preseason camp. “They lose great players, they don’t get asked these types of questions. It’s just the territory I guess. We’re in the (Atlantic Coast Conference). We’re Clemson. I guess we can’t be as good as those guys.”
Kearse contended the doubt is the result of those who cite returning starters as the only measurement of proven prowess.
“We’ve got guys that they might not have started, but we’ve got guys that played in every game,” Kearse said, “They’re guys that went out there and made plays.”
For instance, junior Shaq Lawson was promoted to a defensive end starting slot after the departure of All-American Vic Beasley. Lawson logged 295 snaps last season, 262 fewer than Beasley. Yet, Lawson tallied 44 total tackles, seven more than Beasley.
“(Lawson) has got one career start, and you know what’s great about that?” coach Dabo Swinney asked. “Nobody cares.”
Swinney suggested that starts simply are a formality in Clemson’s system. However, it is not always a distinction of vast superiority. Swinney said he has encouraged his staff to develop experience through its substitution strategy. Coaches rotate qualified players to generate reliable depth at each position.
“Sometimes as coaches you get so comfortable with certain guys. I’ve always had the philosophy of ‘Play everybody that deserves to play,’” Swinney said. “We have to do a great job early on in getting some experience for some guys. You’re only going to get any experience if you go play. You have to be able to see yourself on tape in practice reps and certainly game reps.”
Swinney conceded Clemson’s substitutions may be less frequent and more noticeable this year. There will be more separation between starters and backups. Thus, there will be less equity in playing time.
“Last year, we had a bunch of 50-50 guys. You just rolled. We were very fortunate with that,” Swinney said. “We might have some 90-10, some 80-20, some 70-30. But it’s very important for the morale of our team, for the development of our program, for the development of that player that they get those reps.”
Talent will not be Clemson’s problem. Clemson continues to reload speed and size on defense through its recruiting classes. That was clearly evident from observing the blurs sprinting downfield at the first practice.
“I’d be concerned if we didn’t have talent, but we’ve got talent,” Swinney said. “We’ve got to grow guys up. We’ve got to get them some playing time any way we can…We’ve got to develop a little experience, as fast as we can, because it’s a long season and you’re going to need depth.”
For now, the doubt may linger. It perplexes Kearse, but it does not bother him. From where he stands, from what he understands, that doubt will be answered once the season kicks off.
“We don’t get credit for it. We’ve lost those guys, but we’re still coming out to be the best that we can be,” Kearse said. “We’ve still got to go play football at the end of the day.”