Two years ago, opportunity existed all over Clemson’s depth chart.
The Tigers were coming off a 6-7 season—their first losing record since 1998—and head coach Dabo Swinney was more than willing to take chances on fresh-faced talent.
And it paid off.
Sammy Watkins authored one of the best seasons ever by a collegiate freshman wide receiver, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns en route to being just the fourth true freshman ever named as an Associated Press first-team offensive All-American.
Middle linebacker Stephone Anthony started three games and made 32 tackles, and fellow wideouts Adam Humphries, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant all made contributions.
Here’s the thing for Clemson’s current freshman class: Those guys are all still on campus. Clemson lost only 11 seniors from a team that finished 2012 11-2 with a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU.
That said, room remains for freshmen to contribute this fall for No. 3 Clemson, which is off this week before traveling to N.C. State next Thursday night in a nationally televised ESPN game.
Here are five freshmen who have made an impact and could make a bigger impact before this season draws to a close.
Defensive end Shaq Lawson
Lawson narrowly missed gaining academic eligibility out of hometown D.W. Daniel High School last fall and was forced to take a postgraduate semester at Hargrave Military Academy.
Lawson was considered the nation’s top prep school defensive end prospect. Playing behind junior Corey Crawford, he has made an early impact in opponents’ backfields, piling up six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in two games.
He is an agile, quick and active defensive force who should blossom into a solid every-down defensive end very quickly.
"I came in this fall camp ready and focused," he said. "I stayed on top of the playbook all the time, and came in and competed and had great scrimmages.
"Corey’s staying on me a whole lot [as a mentor]. He just keeps pushing me and telling me to keep working, so I can be great."
Receiver Germone Hopper
The 6'0", 175-pound Hopper was widely considered one of the nation’s top 15 receiver prospects when he signed with Clemson in 2012, but the Tigers' wide receiver depth led coaches to redshirt him. He didn’t play against Georgia but showed why he received so much buzz against South Carolina State.
His first career catch went for a 17-yard touchdown, and Hopper added another 26-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, hanging on despite a wicked lick from an S.C. State defensive back.
He finished with six catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns, and was named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Week. Hopper said he has worked hard on route running and "always tries to make at least one defender miss."
"It was really great, getting to score in Death Valley and see the fans," he said. "Other receivers like Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, their first touches were touchdowns as well. I just added to that group of wide receivers."
In August, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said that Hopper had to earn his trust to get on the field. Consider that done.
"Coming out of spring, [Morris] told me he didn’t trust me a lot," Hopper said. "So I knew that I had to have a very good summer, being I had to train really hard and go into fall camp and mature a lot. I knew I was going to be a critical part of this offense. That’s what I focused on all summer and fall."
Linebacker Ben Boulware
The 6'1", 230-pound linebacker was rated as the nation’s No. 8 inside linebacker prospect by Rivals.com. He was also South Carolina’s No. 2 overall prospect while excelling at nearby T.L. Hanna High School. Boulware received attention for his big hits and the fact that he was constantly around the ball.
That worked to his detriment in the season opener against Georgia when a punt deflected off him and into his own end zone; teammate C.J. Jones alertly scooped the ball up and ran it out, averting potential disaster.
However, that same intense style has already attracted defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ eye. He has three tackles in two games and could see more time as the season progresses.
"I think that Venables is an old-school coach," Boulware said. "The main thing for him is he likes great effort guys, aggressive guys, guys that play through the whistle. I feel that fits him perfectly, the way I play. I feel like once he realized that, he couldn’t keep me off the field."
Tight end Jordan Leggett
Leggett enrolled at Clemson last January and went through spring practice with the Tigers. He excelled in the spring game, catching seven passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. When projected starter Sam Cooper tore his ACL in the same game, the door opened for Leggett to receive major playing time.
However, the 6'6", 235-pounder received a major scare during an August scrimmage, spraining an MCL. The injury was originally feared to be a torn ACL, but Leggett was able to return after missing the Georgia game.
He made his first career catch for six yards against S.C. State, although he admits the brace on his right knee is slowing him down.
"I’m slow coming out of my cuts. It’s different for me. It’s going to change for me," he said. "I’m going to come back and get stronger and be able to trust my knee, that’s the only thing holding me back at this point."
Once he trusts the knee, he could quickly become a weapon in Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
"I’m a faster, more agile, quicker dude. I’ll be a mismatch for safeties because they’re not as tall as me, and linebackers can’t keep up with me. So I’ll be a pretty dangerous threat over the middle, a big target to throw to."
Quarterback Chad Kelly
Kelly was rated as the nation’s No. 4 dual-threat quarterback by Rivals.com in 2012 but redshirted last fall behind starter Tajh Boyd and backup Cole Stoudt.
He performed well in spring and completed six of seven passes for 43 yards in the Tigers’ spring game, but he tore his ACL while making a cut. He was originally expected to be out up to nine months while rehabbing, but intense work got him cleared in less than five months.
He made his college debut Saturday, completing two of six passes for 11 yards and making two rushes for eight yards.
"I wasn’t trying to be timid," he said. "I wanted to play the game like I always play it, not do something I wouldn’t normally do. Making [a cut on a run was] exactly the type of cut I made that tore my ACL. It was in the back of my mind but whatever happens, happens."
Even Kelly admitted he surprised himself with the quick return.
"I was down on myself [when the injury occurred], but I knew in the back of my mind I could come back from it and be bigger, faster, stronger and more mentally prepared," he said. "That was what was in the back of my mind the whole time."
Stoudt has proven himself a capable backup; he completed 19 of 20 passes Saturday, setting a Clemson single-game completion percentage record. However, Kelly’s blend of athleticism and throwing ability compares favorably to Boyd, and he could see time if something happens to the Heisman Trophy candidate.
"I feel perfectly fine," Kelly said. "That’s a testament to working hard and the people on our training staff, to make me feel like it’s a brand new knee and nothing’s wrong with it. I give them all the credit for pushing me every day and saying, 'hey, if you don’t want to come at 6 a.m., you’re not going to be able to compete.'"
*Unless noted, all quotes were gathered first-hand by the author.
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