One position bereft of experience and depth became precariously thinner Wednesday when Clemson freshman tight end Jordan Leggett sustained a knee injury during a scrimmage in Death Valley.
Leggett, 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds from Navarre, Fla., could miss three to four weeks with an MCL injury, leaving Clemson with three healthy scholarship players at the position — senior Darrell Smith, redshirt sophomore Stanton Seckinger and redshirt freshman Jay Jay McCullough.
Rising junior Sam Cooper, the team’s most experienced tight end, sustained a torn ACL during the spring game that required surgery.
“Darrell Smith has been awesome,” said Swinney, who quantified his importance to the offense comparable to quarterback Tajh Boyd’s. “We have got to keep Darrell healthy and ready to go. He is that important to what we do. Running the football, he brings that toughness that we have to have. Seckinger is developing and coming on. Jay Jay has never played.
“We’ve got to make sure we get those guys to the game.”
Leggett enrolled in January and participated in spring drills with the intention of improving his opportunities to play immediately. His six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown in the spring game made him an instant hit
“Most people don’t understand just how critical that position is to what we’re do. It’s probably the toughest position to play outside of quarterback,” Swinney said. “We don’t rarely ever not have a tight end in the game. If Jordan’s out, we only have three guys, so we may have to get someone else ready — an extra (offensive lineman) or somebody — to allow us to do what we do.”
Patrick DeStefano was one name he floated, and Swinney said it probably would not be an option to return guard/tackle Eric Mac Lain to tight end except as an additional blocker. Since the transition last season, Mac Lain has grown into the role, tipping the scales at 310 pounds.
Leggett could miss the first two games. Cooper could be available by Oct. 1 at the latest, Swinney said.
“We are fortunate that we will have Jordan back early in the season,” he said after practice, “… then keep bringing Coop along. We’re going to need him as soon as possible.
“I like the players, but I’m really concerned about our depth there.”
Swinney also said quarterback Chad Kelly, who also tore an ACL during the spring game, could be on a schedule similar to Cooper’s. “It’s amazing to see where they are right now,” he said.
Boyd practiced sparingly Wednesday, and Swinney said he would be limited again Saturday in the final stadium scrimmage.
“We want him to be fresh, want his arm to be fresh,” Swinney said.
Backup Cole Stoudt took most of the snaps with the first team. “He doesn’t flinch when he gets the opportunity.
“He has a real good understanding of our system,” he said. “We can win with Cole.”
With a dozen or more offensive linemen competing for meaningful playing time in the Georgia game, Swinney said three positions are relatively secure. Left tackle Brandon Thomas and right guard Tyler Shatley have been solid, and returning left guard David Beasley has practiced as well as any of them, Swinney said.
That leaves center, where Ryan Norton and Jay Guillermo are engaged in a spirited competition, and right tackle, where returning starter Giff Timothy needs to find a passing gear.
“We’re still battling,” Swinney said. “We do have some options. We do have some flexibility.”
Continuity in the secondary also concerns Swinney with eight freshmen on the roster and a spate of injuries interrupting their preparation.
“Everybody knows that’s the area of our team that needs to improve the most,” Swinney said.