Dabo Swinney shook out a few of the remaining personnel wrinkles nine days ahead of the opener with Auburn in Atlanta, saying Thursday that up to a dozen freshmen could be in their first season at Clemson.
Additionally, Gifford Timothy returned to practice Thursday after missing two weeks following minor surgery for a knee injury — though Swinney would not render a guess when Timothy might reclaim his starting job at offensive right tackle.
And junior corner Martin Jenkins seems headed for season-ending surgery for a lingering groin malady.
Swinney counts on immediate help from freshmen defensive tackles Carlos Watkins and D.J. Reader, defensive end Kevin Dodd, running back Zac Brooks, punter Bradley Pinion, offensive linemen Patrick Destefano, Jay Guillermo and Isaiah Battle, safety Travis Blanks and running back Zac Brooks.
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Reserving the right to change his mind, Swinney said receiver Geo Hopper and quarterback Chad Kelly would continue to prepare as if they might play.
“We won’t make a final decision on him until we see what happens these first few games,” Swinney said of Hopper, one of the fastest players on the team. “If we can get to a certain point, we’ll bite the bullet and hold him for sure.”
Hopper may need to be patient at a position that’s among the richest on the roster. Kelly was in a battle for the No. 2 quarterback job, but Swinney said after the most recent scrimmage that Cole Stoudt had retained the backup job to starter Tajh Boyd.
Curiously, Swinney said blue-chip linebacker Tony Steward initially will be relegated to special teams. One of the top players in the nation out of high school at any position, Steward is coming off a pair of knee injuries that limited him for two seasons.
Seniors Jonathan Willard and Corico Wright are ahead of him at weak side linebacker, with Willard the choice to start “if we played this week,” Swinney said. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables implied that Steward might be a candidate for a redshirt.
Swinney disagreed with the suggestion that Steward’s diminished role might result in another wasted season.
“I know Tony Steward is a five-star recruit and all that, but he’s got to go earn it,” Swinney said. “I don’t see it that way at all. He’s a rolled ankle away from playing a lot at linebacker.
“We’ll need him to win.”
Losing Jenkins was a sharp hit at a relatively thin position. Jenkins played with the injury last season but it became untenable during the summer.
“He’s one of my favorite players,” Swinney said. “Plays a lot bigger than he is, and (he) worked hard this summer.”