By William Qualkinbush
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Leadership is important for victory to happen in a team setting. Not a coach in America would dispute the fact. But it does not mean leadership is readily available or easily identifiable.
With only 11 seniors on the roster, the Clemson football team will need to look far and wide in order to take the next step as a program—as Head Coach Dabo Swinney said, to “become the consistent winner”.
Having such a small senior class has necessitated an accelerated leadership learning curve for many younger players on the 2012 roster. The seniors themselves have taken notice of the potential that exists in their younger teammates, which has caused an increase in the number of underclassmen present in high-level discussions.
Since becoming the full-time head coach prior to the 2009 season, Swinney has included his seniors in what he calls “leadership meetings” where the team’s elder statesmen can discuss issues and ideas with him. Often times, there are one or two juniors or sophomores in the room, as well.
However, the next few leadership meetings will include several juniors and sophomores as the structure of the team takes shape. Although Swinney says the small number of seniors creates voids that can be filled by younger players, he also trusts his players to seek and identify pieces that can benefit the collective body with their abilities.
“It’s totally up to them,” Swinney said. “I don’t make that decision. They know who the leaders on the team are. They know who cuts corners and who doesn’t. So it’s interesting for me to see. I just run the meetings, but they decide who’s in there.”
Two seniors in the room—center Dalton Freeman and defensive end Mallaciah Goodman—have already begun to equip their younger teammates by providing accountability throughout the summer. Clemson’s two representatives at the ACC Football Kickoff have demonstrated a willingness to lead in places where fans and analysts have concerns about the Tigers’ production—the offensive and defensive lines.
“He’s like having a coach on the field,” Swinney said of Freeman. “He has done a fantastic job taking these young guys and holding them accountable, challenging them just like a coach would do in the offseason.”
Swinney says he has challenged Goodman to become an elite player this offseason. Part of the transformation has been an enhanced leadership role the unassuming lineman has owned so far.
“He’s had those guys out there teaching technique—not just what to do, but how to do it,” Swinney said. “That’s what the summers are all about.”
The leadership summits and the personal challenges reveal an important fact about the Clemson football program: Dabo Swinney trusts his players. Whether in a meeting with coaches, on the practice field, or hosting a recruit and his family on an official visit, the fourth-year head coach knows wisdom will be properly passed down.
It is a major reason he can be confident heading into the 2012 season.
“The best part of Clemson, and the greatest reason we recruit well, is our players,” Swinney said. “Our players are our greatest assets, and they are also our best recruiters. When people come on our campus, they just do a fantastic job of selling Clemson for us.”