CLEMSON, S.C. — Dorian O’Daniel trotted off the practice field earlier this week, four days of sweat already in the books this spring, and he couldn’t help but marvel at how fast everything moved. Two months ago, there was a celebration. Now it’s all work again.
“It’s crazy,” said O’Daniel, a senior linebacker. “Still coming off the win from the national championship, and it’s sort of surreal that it’s already here, already back in the swing of things.”
It’s tough to argue with that perspective. O’Daniel might still be brushing confetti off his uniform, the vestiges of last season’s national championship still fresh in the minds of everyone.
Deshaun Watson is still stealing headlines, only now he’s doing it at the NFL combine rather than with late heroics to defeat Alabama. Hunter Renfrow’s star still shines brightly around Clemson, with 2,000 magazine covers signed and more being added to that total each day. Dabo Swinney is getting questions about visiting the White House, but he’s effectively stepped from the winning locker room in Tampa, Florida, onto the recruiting trail, then to the practice fields to start the spring.
It’s all been a whirlwind, which makes it nearly impossible to truly set last year’s championship aside when the celebration is still in full swing. And at a place like Clemson, where disrespect is worn as a badge of honor, it’s more than a bit awkward to open a new season still riding high from the last one.
“It’s been a blur the last six weeks, finishing recruiting and traveling and doing different engagements and functions,” Swinney said. “We’re just getting back to the details of who we are as a program, and we’ve got a very detailed and thorough process we go through to evaluate what we do and set the charge for the new season.”
Setting that charge starts with resetting the perspective surrounding the program, and that might be a bit tougher to do in 2017.
This, after all, is the same coach who spent much of last season touting the burden of being “little old Clemson,” the tiny school facing down the giants of college football. It was a tough sell even then. Now the Tigers have a new trophy on display inside their new football building that comes equipped with a slide, a whiffle ball field and a bowling alley. Good luck selling the world on Clemson’s underdog status.
Of course, Swinney isn’t interested in convincing everyone Clemson is once again poised at the bottom of the mountain. He just needs to push the message to the 85 guys in the locker room.
“We build our program with a windshield mentality — win or lose, it’s always about what’s next,” Swinney said. “We start over. We don’t assume anything. We reinstall the core values of our program, and back to work. There’s some change, and change brings new energy and excitement.”
It’s a bit ironic, really. Usually it’s the voices outside the locker room reminding players about what’s been lost — the new quarterback battle, the turnover on offense, the missing leadership at linebacker. There’s no doubt those questions still swirl around the 2017 iteration of the Clemson Tigers, but the voices pushing that agenda the hardest might be inside the locker room.
Swinney’s mantra for this spring was clear from Day 1, repeated by the head coach and assistants and players alike: It’s a new season and a new challenge. Clemson doesn’t get a jump start on winning its next championship just because it’s still wearing the crown from the last one.
“It was remarkable what we did, and we were hyped about it for a week or two, but once we got to winter workouts, guys were into it,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s back to work.”
So the goal of another national title is still a talking point; it’s just that Swinney & Co. are careful not to call it a repeat. Last year’s team is scattered, with big stars now gone and the personality of that group now relegated to the history books.
There is no chance to repeat, Swinney said at the start of Clemson’s spring practices. This is a completely new team, one that has to pay the same price last year’s team did. And even if last year’s party hasn’t quite ended yet, Swinney is making sure this team knows they have nothing to celebrate.
“We’re not defending a national championship. We don’t talk about that,” Swinney said. “We’re chasing another one. Last year is over. We’ve got a lot of champions on this team, but this team has its own journey, and it’s totally separate from last year.”