Coach Dabo Swinney believes No. 4 Clemson is healthy and deeper as they prepare for another championship run after battling injuries and COVID-19-related issues.
The Tigers (8-1, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) returned several missing starters, including q uarterback Trevor Lawrence, who hadn’t played in five weeks, last weekend.
The defensive starters back from injury include tackle Tyler Davis and linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr., were also back on the field in a 52-17 blowout of Pittsburgh last Saturday.
Lawrence was sidelined two games after testing positive for COVID-19 in October and hadn’t played since Oct. 24.
But Swinney said there was a positive side to their absence. With the starters watching, several younger players got practice and game reps, providing them much-needed experience.
“We’ve had a little bit of everything across the board,” Swinney said Tuesday. “And we’ve continued to play well. We had to get guys ready in different ways, so where we are right now, totality wise after nine games, it’s really pleasing.”
Especially with Clemson’s biggest games ahead.
The Tigers can clinch a spot in the ACC title game Saturday night against Virginia Tech (4-5, 4-4), since the league chose not to reschedule their postponed contest at Florida State.
The championship game in Charlotte is set for Dec. 19 with Notre Dame already locked in since it also will not play after Saturday when it hosts Syracuse. The ACC decided the three league contenders, No. 9 Miami has one loss, will be evaluated on nine-game seasons.
If Clemson beat the Fighting Irish for the title, the Tigers would be headed for a sixth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff and a chance at their third national title in five years.
The depth issues were more pronounced on defense entering the year. Clemson had front-line strength as it replaced six starters including three of four in the secondary.
Swinney said Clemson will need contributions from everyone on the roster.
Backup DJ Uiagalelei went 1-1 as a starter in place of Lawrence, rallying Clemson from 18 points behind to defeat Boston College 34-28 on Oct. 31. Uiagalelei, a freshman, threw for 439 yards in the loss at Notre Dame the following week.
Freshman linebacker Trenton Simpson has filled in for his injured teammates and is tied for second on the team with three sacks.
“He makes plays wherever you put him and you give him these jobs,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “He has shown the ability to make plays. Now you are just looking for sustainability and consistency.”
Seeing all the starters back on the field last week lifted up the entire team, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
“It’s huge, because now it gives the defense confidence that the offense is going to be able to go out there and execute,” Elliott said. “And the offense knows, hey. the defense is going to create some turnovers, give us some short fields.”
That was certainly the case against Pitt on Saturday. Clemson got three interceptions in first quarter all which it turned into touchdowns on the way to a 24-0 start.
Davis, a sophomore who’s a two-year starter, said he loved watching his replacements like freshman Bryan Bresee grow in their ability and confidence during his time away. But the defensive starter said he also saw the excitement from teammates, coaches and fans at seeing Clemson’s more experienced players back on the field.
“Everybody getting back healthy. That’s great,” Davis said. “Everybody’s coming back strong and we’re going to be strong down the stretch.”
By PETE IACOBELLI AP Sports Writer
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