Safety Van Smith waited longer than the 10 other players from Clemson’s 2015 freshman class to see the field on first down this season and he didn’t waste a second of his opportunity.
Entering the game at Miami late in the third quarter with the outcome fait accompli, Smith intercepted a pass and delivered a team-high six tackles.
“A guy like Van Smith gets in there, and he’s a third-team strong safety, and he just smoked it,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “He was ready. Good for him.”
Smith’s production was indicative of the depth Clemson turned loose on a wounded Miami team. Players on the three-deep such as Smith received extensive experience that should serve a relatively young Clemson roster going forward beginning Saturday at N.C. State.
In addition to Smith's production, the backups on the offensive line played virtually half the game without a dip in production, helping clear the lanes for 416 rushing yards. Kelly Bryant, who entered as the third quarterback, reopened the competition with Nick Schuessler as Deshaun Watson’s backup with 59 rushing yards and two touchdowns on five carries.
Running backs Tyshon Dye and C.J. Fuller were at their most productive. As well in extended appearances were defensive ends Richard Yeargin and Austin Bryant, defensive tackle Albert Huggins, backup linebackers Jalen Williams and Kendall Joseph, corners Adrian Baker, Mark Fields and Marcus Edmond and safety Jeffrie Gibson.
“I think we took 72 and 69 of them played,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “You certainly don’t anticipate that.
“That’s a plus for us because it’s a long season, and we’re kind of at the halfway point of where we want to be and the type of year we want to have,” he said. “So we’re going to need all those guys. At some point one of those guys is going to have to step up and play a much bigger role than maybe they have right now.”
Other than special teams responsibilities, many backups had not played since Appalachian State in the second week of the season.
Injuries and off-field issues have not been debilitating, though Venables could use another dependable option at linebacker.
Jay Guillermo, who left school during the winter semester to sort out physical and emotional issues, made the transition at center seamless with Ryan Norton sidelined by an injury. With Greg Huegel on target, kicker Ammon Lakip found a niche after his suspension. D.J. Reader’s return from hiatus strengthened an already productive tandem at defensive tackle. And a deep, though relatively young, group of receivers picked up the production lost when Mike Williams went out for the season with a fractured vertebra.
“One of the things I tell them, you’ve got to be ready,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing. By the end of the season, you’re going to know some of these guys.”
Swinney feels better about the depth at quarterback than a year ago when Watson missed half the season with injuries. He favorably compares Bryant to Watson, “the same aptitude, ability, potential.”
“The thing about Kelly is that his work ethic is off the chart.”
Bryant had always been on the radar, but Smith jumped off the screen.
The first commitment to this year’s freshman class, Smith enrolled in January after a four-star career as a running back, receiver and corner at Hough High in Charlotte and prepared for his debut at safety, one of the talent-rich positions on the Clemson roster.
“Here’s a guy that starts on all of our special teams, but hadn’t had a lot of opportunity at safety yet,” Swinney said. “He’s been paying attention. He’s been learning the plan, and suddenly he gets in a game. He’s ready.”
The opportunity to further build confidence in the entire roster would seem to resonate.
“That’s what I told our staff,” Swinney said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to coach and teach this week because they’re all ears. All their antennas are up. They all want to see themselves on tape.
“There’s just a little skip in their step coming off a game like that.”