CLEMSON — Former Orangeburg-Wilkinson Bruin Albert Huggins has always had the talent to go with his 6-foot-3, 305-pound frame.
But what has kept him from having the impact on the Clemson Tigers’ defensive unit that many expected has been Huggins himself.
By his own admission, Huggins hasn’t wanted “it” as bad as he needed to through his first two seasons — a problem that defensive coordinator Brent Venables noticed this summer.
“You don’t want to be coached hard, if you don’t think you’re supposed to know the playbook like everybody else, if you don’t want to stay awake in the meeting, if you don’t want to hustle to cover the ball, if you don’t want to show up on time, you’re going to be in the back of that line, period,” Venables said. "You’re going to earn your way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hopefully, that’s what they expect.
"Hopefully, they don’t have their lip stuck out. Hopefully, they want to prove everybody else wrong, or for some people want to prove them right.”
It was a message that the former five-star recruit took to heart, and Saturday night, with the Tigers missing starting defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence — who suffered a leg injury against Georgia Tech and was in a walking boot — Huggins proved all of the doubters wrong.
"It was bad that Big Dex was down, but it just gave me an opportunity to show the coaches what I have. That they can trust me to go out there and perform to the best of my ability,” Huggins said. "It felt good to have fun on the field. A lot of guys think about it too much or whatnot, but I felt good. I felt loose and I felt like I was ready to play and I had a good game off of it."
Huggins' first career start could not have come on a bigger stage, as the Tigers needed a victory over Atlantic Division rival Florida State to secure their third consecutive division title and a third straight trip to the ACC Championship Game (Dec. 2).
After being relegated to a reserve role in his first two seasons at Clemson, over which he amassed 32 career tackles, Huggins entered his junior year still playing the role of a backup to Lawrence. However, when the lights came on Saturday night in Death Valley, Huggins showed the nation what he was capable of.
He finished the night with four tackles, including two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. But now he will turn his attention to showing the coaches that he can perform on a consistent basis.
“Now I just have to be consistent. I have to do it the next game. Or whenever my opportunity comes up, I just have to do it the next game,” Huggins said. "That's the plan. That's always the plan, to show and prove to the coaches, prove to Coach (Venables), prove to Coach (Todd) Bates, prove to Coach Swinney that I can actually play and they can trust you."
With Huggins appearing to be coming into his own, the Tigers now have their sights set on a return trip to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte and a third straight trip to the College Football Playoff.
While the type of success that the Tigers have experienced since Huggins' arrival in Clemson in January of 2015 may seem to be a regular occurrence, he understands that it is far from normal and can be taken away from any second. So enjoy it while you can.
"It feels good. This is my third time being there and it's my third year being here, so it feels like a norm but I know it's not and it can be snatched away from you real fast. I'm just thankful that we're here,” Huggins said.
“It's very special. Also, it's not the norm. It feels like the norm, but it's easy for it to get snatched away real fast and I feel like we've been there twice since I've been here and now we know what we have to do to continue to go to the playoffs."
The journey from a five-star recruit to a reserve and now to a contributor on the Tigers’ defense has been a long and grueling one for Huggins.
But the lessons that he has learned along the way prepared him to have a night like he did against the Seminoles — and more in the future.
"When you think about it man, you should want it as much as anybody else or more than anybody else,” Huggins said. "(The journey has been) very hard. I have had glimpses of showing that I can be great or showing that I can do my job, rather than be great. This was me doing my job tonight and my chances opened up. That's all that is. So it felt good.
“I know that when I’m called on to go out there, whether that’s starting or coming in for someone, that I can go out there and be a disruptive force on opposing offenses. That is why I came to Clemson.”