CLEMSON — Ryan Norton was forced to quit competitive swimming when he became too big to make the turns without scraping the bottom of the pool.
A driven young man intent on becoming Clemson’s next starting center, Norton was a championship caliber swimmer at 15 in the Greenville County community pool league for Orchard Farms in Simpsonville.
His future in football was quickly becoming evident.
“He wanted to swim until he was 18, which, I guess, was the limit in SAIL,” Ralf Norton said of his son.
After another scrape on a turn, Norton climbed out of the pool disheartened. “Dad, I just can’t do this.’ ”
The disappointment was short-lived. Coach Doug Shaw plucked Norton off the Mauldin High “C” team after his freshman year and installed him as the starting right tackle as a sophomore.
Norton’s father was ecstatic.
“My expectations were (such) that I was happy he made the high school varsity,” he said. “He was just hoping to get a small college scholarship.”
Norton moved to left tackle as a junior then center as a senior at Mauldin, earning a reputation as a tough player with a head and disposition for the game. ESPN rated him No. 11 nationally among centers as many schools in the Southeast checked in before Norton settled on Clemson before his senior season.
“Vanderbilt was one of the first schools that ever wrote him,” his father recalled. “From that point on, it just happened real fast.”
As a potential successor to all-star Dalton Freeman on a team that wears its ambition on its sleeve, Norton could be the key component this season at Clemson. It has been a whirlwind ascent, though not unexpected, said his former coach.
Mature and focused, Norton was a bit of an enigma at Mauldin. Typically soft-spoken and well-mannered, he played almost angry.
“He played the game wide open. I don’t care if we were in shorts and T-shirts or in a game,” Shaw said. “He was going full speed all the time.
“The one thing Ryan had is the mentality you wish every player on your team had,” he said, recalling Norton telling a Clemson coach. “When I’m blocking, I’m trying to bury you.”
In a game against Laurens his junior season, Norton became so angered that an interception would force the offense from the field that he sprinted 25 yards and caught the thief with a violent tackle. It was one of the video highlights the Nortons sent to college scouts.
Last week when he visited Shaw, he asked to watch it again. “I’m sure that young man remembers him,” the coach said.
Atop the depth chart at center, Norton understood from the outset this spring that replacing Freeman wouldn’t come by default, but Shaw watched him begin preparing before he left Mauldin. Norton, a third-year sophomore, has strapped 25 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame since high school and hopes to add another 10 or 15 by fall.
Intangibles will determine who plays. Jay Guillermo likely will push him into the season, so Norton couldn’t allow a rolled ankle early in camp to slow his momentum.
Freeman played all but 103 of Clemson’s offensive snaps at center last season, so Norton’s 277 also included work at guard. Freeman mentored Norton in preparation for the transition, which necessitates knowing every nuance of Chad Morris’ offense. That requires hours of film work, often with quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Norton, who would be the least experienced starter on the line, said he won’t shrink from the responsibility. His confidence has been buoyed as he learns the offense and begins to find opportunities to assert himself as a leader. The player Shaw remembers should make the transition smoothly, one capable of seizing it, diplomatically at first.
“He knows as well as I do you’re fighting for your position every day. Nothing’s guaranteed,” his father said. “We’ve had conversations about that. If he has a tough day at practice, he knows Jay and others are breathing down his throat, and they’re just as anxious to play as he is.”
Norton wants to be a significant cog in a season ripe with potential, and he knows that whoever hunkers over the ball first against Georgia will be tested quickly.
“We’re looking for a national championship,” he said. “I feel like we have an opportunity to do it I we keep our eyes on the prize.”