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Clemson heeding last year’s mistakes, but not harping on them

January 4, 2017

CLEMSON – Predictably the big plays by O.J. Howard in last year’s championship game lingered during media day Wednesday at Clemson, as did the special teams miscues that helped the Alabama Crimson Tide beat the Tigers last January in Arizona for the national championship.

While that’s what was on the mind of the reporters in attendance, Tigers players and the coaching staff have long since moved on from it – to them it’s a different ball game, literally and figuratively.

Defensive back Jadar Johnson said the team isn’t really focusing too much on last year’s game despite the storylines of redemption and a rematch with a college football powerhouse. They are, however, somewhat cognizant of the mistakes.

“We’re not really looking at it as a rematch game. These are two different teams. We’ll never beat the team from last year. We can’t go back in time and beat that team,” Johnson said. “It’s not the same team; they just have the same name. We’re really just going into this game looking at it as another game. We’re just trying to make our legacy for this season. We’re not even really thinking about last season.”

That didn’t stop the questions about both subjects from coming early and often at Clemson’s last media availability before departing for Tampa with a chance to atone for all the things that went wrong in the 2016 game.

Howard caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns on the way to Bama’s victory. The Tigers spent much of the day pointing out their own breakdowns on the plays and how they could be fixed.

“Hopefully we’re going to do our job, first of all, and play the coverages and techniques that are called. We’ve just got to have our eyes on the right things,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said when asked how the team was better equipped to defend Howard this time around. “Two of his big, long touchdowns; it’s just basic football, and we tried to do too much.”

As for the special teams, a few of the players mentioned taking pride in having a strong season on special teams and making it a point for that unit to be consistent.

The Tigers gave up a big return and Alabama recovered an onside kick – both at crucial moments of the game.

Swinney didn’t see the onside kick as a back-breaker. It was more of a momentum swing in his eyes. He noted that Alabama still drove 50-plus yards to drive down the field, which was the bigger issue.

“Stunned? No. Pissed? Yes,” Swinney said of his reaction to the play.

Swinney summed it up simply.

“It came down to very simple things, and you can’t take those things for granted,” Swinney said.

Drawing comparisons

Similarities to last year’s game itself weren’t the only ones drawn during discussion Wednesday. Two of Alabama’s top offensive weapons were drawing a lot of comparisons to other stars.

Bo Scarborough was often tied to 2016 Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry, who ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns in last season’s national championship game.

“They’re pretty close to identical; same build and run the same way. I think Scarborough might have a little quicker second gear than Henry has just from watching film.” linebacker Ben Boulware said. “He presents a challenge, and so does every other player on their team. We’re aware of that. We’ve got a package put in to slow him down, as difficult as that may be, we’re going to try our best.”

Brent Venables noted Alabama was another “quarterback-led” team like Ohio State and Louisville. Venables said the three – Crimson Tide freshman Jalen Hurts, the Buckeyes’ J.T. Barrett and the Cardinals’ Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson – are all talented players.

“They do a good job leading their offense and making plays. All three of them are good runners,” Venables said. “All three of them can throw when they have to.”

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