Quarterback Deshaun Watson is the most heralded of the Clemson freshmen, and Tigers coaches are eagerly awaiting his return against Georgia Tech on Saturday.
But two other freshmen – and wide receiver Artavis Scott and running back Wayne Gallman – are carving out their own niche.
Early on, Scott began to assert himself as a complement to sophomore receiver Mike Williams.
“He’s a polished guy that understands the bigger picture of the position,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s not your typical freshman. He’s mature and serious about being a heck of a player.”
Swinney said much the same of Sammy Watkins as a freshman. Senior tackle Kalon Davis said Scott’s bearing and maturity remind him of Watkins’. Davis was impressed when Scott asked Swinney if he could speak to his teammates a few weeks ago to remind them of their goals.
“We’ve never had a freshman do that,” Davis said. “That was a big deal for us.”
Scott leads Clemson in receiving with 53 receptions for 624 yards and five touchdowns, tracking behind Watkins’ freshman pace but surpassing DeAndre Hopkins’. Scott twice tied Watkins’ freshman record with two touchdowns (S.C. State and Wake Forest). His 164 receiving yards in the S.C. State game broke Watkins’ freshman mark. Also, he became the only Clemson player with 10 receptions in consecutive games, achieving it against Boston College and Louisville.
“He is a guy that’s mature beyond his years,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “Even when things aren’t going well, he’s talking to the offensive linemen. He’s talking to the quarterbacks.
“He’s as calm a kid as we got,” he said. “You truly appreciate him when you’re in adverse times.”
Davis wouldn’t be surprised if Scott reaches the class of elite players like those who recently preceded him.
“You can see he wants to be great,” Davis said. “With experience, I think he’s going to be a great one.”
Watson’s return alters the dynamic for all Clemson players because his skill, instincts and grace under pressure help make them all better. Yet, twice in more than a century have freshmen led Clemson in rushing and receiving the same season – 1990 and 1943. Scott and redshirt freshman Gallman are on pace to achieve that distinction.
A messenger in a high school wing-T scheme, Gallman leads Clemson in rushing with 405 yards. Beginning the year third on the depth chart, Gallman shared the primary load at midseason until Adam Choice, another freshman, tore a knee ligament early in the Boston College game.
Long and athletic (6-foot-1 and 205 pounds), he slides and glides naturally. Once he learned patience rather than running past his blockers, Gallman became immensely productive.
“Wayne is such a violent runner and so fast and everything he does is full speed,” Morris said. “The average person would say that’s a great thing, but when you’re running a zone and have to set your blocks and see the down linemen and be able to make the cut off the down linemen, you can’t be at full speed.
“You have to have a feel for it,” he said, “knowing when to slow down and hit it back door.”
Surprisingly durable, he seems to have a well of energy late in games when managing the clock becomes critical.
“Going with the flow with the offensive line, going with their push, relying on what they tell me – I’m just running and not thinking too much,” he said. “I’m getting there.
“I don’t think I’m at my peak yet.”
A two-time ACC rookie of the week, Gallman delivered back-to-back 100-yard performances against Syracuse and Wake Forest. The twin 100s were the first by a Clemson freshman since C.J. Spiller in 2006 and the fourth by a Clemson back.
“You have heard me talk about Wayne Gallman for a while, but it has just been him becoming a complete player and, really, just understanding the speed of the game and how to be a good running back,” Swinney said. “It takes a little bit of time. He’s really just maturing.”
As they all are.