CLEMSON — When Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins announced in January that they would all be returning to Clemson, a depth chart that looked like there was room for some upward mobility suddenly became more difficult to navigate.
But former Orangeburg-Wilkinson standout and current Clemson defensive tackle Albert Huggins was not concerned about having to battle the incumbents for a spot on the depth chart because his ultimate goal is aided by the return of the three All-Americans.
“Let’s go, another natty (national championship) man! It didn’t bother me,” Huggins said. “It didn’t bother me at all. Just more competition and made me want to work harder. I was happy.”
And a happy Huggins is a dangerous Huggins, according to head coach Dabo Swinney, who spent a great deal of the Tigers’ spring practices singing the praises of the former five-star recruit.
“Albert Huggins has been awesome,” Swinney said. “I don’t know if the light switch has completely come on. I don’t know if that’s the right term for it, or if he just cares more. I don’t know, but man, he’s turning into what we all knew he could be.
“He’s disruptive. He’s playing fast. He’s playing with a high motor.”
After starting two games last season for starting defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who was battling a foot injury, Huggins had his best season in a Tiger uniform. He finished the 2017 season with 21 tackles, five tackles for loss and appeared in 13 games.
While Swinney may not to be able to figure out what changed for Huggins this spring, Huggins believes that he knows what changed.
“I feel like I opened a lot of eyes (last season), and it allows the coaches to believe in me more than they already did.”
Huggins once again started for Lawrence, who was relegated to a non-contact jersey all spring as a precaution, in Saturday’s spring game, where he finished with only one tackle after leaving the game with a what Swinney called a “thumb injury."
CLEMSON -- 55,000 orange-and-white clad fans filled the lower bowl and part of the upper decks of Clemson’s Memorial Stadium Saturday as the T…
And even though Huggins' chances to become a “starter” are slim -- with all four starters back for the Tigers — he is driven to continue to show the coaches that they can count on “Bert” to show up when his number is called.
We’re missing the big guy (Lawrence), but it is an opportunity, and I’m going to take advantage of my opportunity,” Huggins said. “I would love to be a starter, but if I don’t start, I’m still going to go out there and get every rep I can get.”
It is that attitude that is the difference in Huggins.
According to defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who entered with Huggins as a part of the 2015 class, the journey for Huggins has been a long one, but he is excited to see where it ends.
“He has came a long, long, long way. Just from his conditioning to his knowledge, which would be the biggest thing for me,” Ferrell said. “Just seeing him buy into this system, and buy into what Coach (Todd) Bates has been teaching us has been really huge because Albert is a guy that has all the talent in the world, but it took some time for him to really learn and to buy into everything that was being taught to us.
“There was a lot of stuff that was hard to do. But once he did that, I feel like we’re just seeing his game take off, and it’s still going that way. So, I’m excited for him moving into the fall and seeing him progress even more this summer.”
Regardless of whether Huggins starts for the Tigers, one thing is certain, he is going to give all he can to his teammates because he understands this is his final ride in a Tiger uniform.
“This is the last hoorah, and I’ve got to make it the best one,” Huggins said. “It’s been hard these past four years. It’s time to have fun, be serious and have fun with the rest of the guys. I’ve been given an opportunity — now I need to take advantage of it.”
Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.