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A Pawsome Experience

Camden’s Thomas Austin adds a national championship to his extensive resume

Posted: January 12, 2017 3:20 p.m.
Updated: January 13, 2017 1:00 a.m.
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THOMAS AUSTIN, A 2004 Camden High graduate, talks with Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett in warmups from a game this past season in Death Valley.

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Picking up his children from school is not the most glamorous or exciting way to celebrate winning a national championship. For Thomas Austin, though, it probably felt right.

In what has been and continues to be heady times around the Clemson University football program, the former Camden High All-State and Shrine Bowl offensive lineman was enjoying a rare family day away from all the craziness which has surrounded the Tigers’ since Monday’s night’s 35-31 win over Alabama for the school’s first national football  title in 35 years.

From the final wild six seconds of the game in Tampa to the return trip from the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport back to campus and a rollicking reception from the school’s adoring fans on Tuesday, there had hardly been a minute of down time for Austin, a second-year graduate assistant on Dabo Swinney’s staff, before returning to the grind of work Thursday morning to prepare for the 2017 campaign.

Austin, who played right guard and center for Clemson from 2006 through 2009 and earned All-ACC and All-America honors as a senior, took Swinney up on his offer to join the staff as a graduate assistant working with the offensive lineman a little more than two years ago in the days before before the Tigers faced and defeated Oklahoma, 40-6, in the 2015 Orange Bowl. 

In Austin’s first full year working under offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, he experienced the disappointment of last year’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national championship contest. On Monday, Clemson got more than a bit of payback as quarterback Deshaun Watson’s two-yard pass to Hunter Renfrow with one tick left in the game clock delivering the ACC champions the come-from-behind win while capping a 21-point fourth quarter against the vaunted Crimson Tide defense.

A little more than 34 hours later, the enormity of the Tigers’ accomplishment still had not fully sunk in on Austin.

“It certainly doesn’t feel real yet. You still find yourself pinching yourself even the night after or the next day saying, ‘You won the national championship,’” said Austin, who just turned 30 in November. “It’s hard to believe; we were in a vacuum (on Tuesday.)

“When we got back to Clemson, there were probably 7,000 to 8,000 fans waiting for us at the stadium. That was cool and helped it to sink in, a little bit. It does seem a little surreal, certainly.”

Who could blame Austin and the Tigers if the world was moving at break-neck speed following the events of Monday night. Heck, the final minutes of the contest alone could fill a book.

When Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts zigged and zagged his way through the Clemson defense for a 30-yard scoring run to give the Crimson tide the 31-28 lead with 2:07 left to play, it left the Tigers and quarterback Deshaun Watson with enough time for a last-gasp comeback.

Before Hurts’ scoring run, the Clemson defense had been getting the Tide offense to go three-and-out.  That led to the final Alabama drive which started with just less than five minutes to play. Given how the Tigers were bottling up the Alabama defense, Austin said the Tiger offense was preparing for either a four- or two-minute final drive to end the evening.

“When we kicked the ball off to them with four or five minutes left, Deshaun would be ready for either a four- or, two-minute drill,” Austin said. “They scored and we said, ‘All right, let’s go do it.’

“That was kind of the guys’ approach all year and I think being in close ballgames all year really helped us win this one.”

The Tigers had been in more than their share of nail-biters during the course of the regular season. From last-second escapes against Louisville and North Carolina State --- in which the Clemson defensive team was on the field to save the day each time--- to the turnover-plagued loss to Pittsburgh, which handed the Tigers their lone loss of the season with a game-winning field goal with six seconds left. Not once, however, did the Clemson offense have the honors of winning a game with a drive in the waning seconds of play.

Watson and company got their chance when staring down a second and goal from the Alabama two with six seconds left in the contest. While a field goal would have sent the game into overtime, the Tigers were going to go for the kill. After some conversation during a time out, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott sent in a play called “Crush” in which Watson would roll to his right while wide outs Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow would break to their right with Scott getting in the way of Renfrow’s defender, clearing a path for the pass.

The pick play worked to perfection as a wide-open Renfrow hauled in the pass in the end zone with one second left sending Tiger Nation into a frenzy.

When he heard the call for the final snap, Austin was more than just being on board with the decision as to the play.

“I liked the call, I really did,” Austin said while describing the biggest completion in Clemson history. “We knew they were going to be in man coverage. Artavis Scott did a great job in setting up the pick and there’s not a guy who has better hands than Hunter Renfrow.

“It was a good, safe play, too, because if it wasn’t there, you could throw it away. We thought with six seconds left that we could get one play off and, worst case scenario, if you don’t get it, you take a time out and kick a field goal. We wanted to go for the win, though. We thought it was a good play and that we could win the game with that play: Kudos to those guys for being aggressive and going for the win.”

The play was the 99th countable offensive snap for the Tiger offense which ran its pre-game blueprint to perfection. In the 45-40 loss to Alabama in the previous year’s national championship game, Clemson’s rapid-paced offense wore the Crimson Tide defense down in the fourth quarter. With Alabama not having as much depth on the defensive side of the ball this time around, the Tiger offensive brain trust --- which has a goal of 80 countable snaps each game --- came up with a similar design for Monday.

 “It was certainly part of our game plan,” Austin said of making Alabama’s defense have to stay on the field for long stretches of time. “We feel like if we can get into a rhythm, sustain drives and wear teams out, we like our depth, in the skill positions especially.”

Austin made no bones about Alabama having the best defense the Tigers shad seen all year. This Crimson Tide unit, however, had one subtle weakness.

“It was the best defense we were going to play all year, we knew that, but we did not see the depth that we saw from them last year,” Austin said of the Crimson Tide. “Last year, I think they played 10 to 12 defensive linemen against us. This year, we saw about six or seven. The guys who were starting this year were backups last year except for Jonathan Allen.

“We felt like depth was a little bit of a concern for them and if we could weather the storm early, which is why you saw that a lot of our game plan was getting the ball to the perimeter and making them play the whole field, wearing them down and then, being in position the second half and running the ball more effectively.

“They’re extremely talented on defense and will have several first round draft picks but they just didn’t have the depth that they had last year. That’s kind of what you saw.”

In the first half, the Alabama defense was dominant in holding Clemson to seven points. Tide defenders were seemingly everywhere in the first 24 minutes, including in the Tiger backfield with a series of blitzes when Clemson left Watson alone in the backfield.  Even though the offense struggled, Austin said there was no finger-pointing or blindly blaming someone for the difficulties. Instead, he said, it was a case of “address it, fix it, correct it and make the proper adjustments. Focusing on what you control helps,” he said. 

“They had a few new wrinkles that we hadn’t seen that we had to adjust to like in any game you play. One of their adjustments was that any time we went to empty (no running), they were blitzing. There was one occasion where one of our linemen didn’t gap down and block a guy. There was another situation where Deshaun had to get rid of it a little quicker because he was hot and we didn’t have that man accounted for.

“It was a combination of factors. Part of it was that we also had a true freshman at right tackle who gave up a sack early on but battled back. I think our guys continued to battle which has been our story all year long.”

In the locker room at halftime, Austin said Swinney was relaxed and never lost faith in his team. “Coach Swinney had a conference at halftime and said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do it but we’re going to find a way to win this game.” 

After the rocky start, the halftime adjustments --- especially on the offensive line --- led to a 28-point second half outburst. The Tigers held the ball for better than 34 minutes in a game in which they had 31 first downs to Alabama’s 16. But not all the credit should be heaped on the offense, Austin pointed out.

“It was all three facets of the game,” he said. “Special teams made a couple big plays and while our defense gave up that touchdown at the end of the game, they got a lot of three and outs for us which helped us wear (the Alabama defense) down. Even some of our drives which ended with punts were seven, eight or nine play drives which takes a toll on the defense.”

Another check mark in Clemson’s box was one which came before kickoff. After having taken Alabama to the wire in 2016, the Tigers knew they belonged on the same field as the Crimson Tide. And after drubbing Ohio State, 31-0, in the semifinals, confidence was at an all-time high in Clemson’s practices leading up to the showdown in Tampa.

“Last year,” Austin said, “our guys believed we could play with them. This year, we knew we could play with them. There was a confidence there after going toe-to-toe with them last year. I think a lot of people lose to Alabama before they step on the field because it’s Alabama. I think our guys were very confident in our preparation and knew that we can play with anybody if we play our brand of football. 

“Our focus has always been that if we take care of business and play to our standards, we can play with anybody in the country.”

The Dabo factor
The confidence which the Tigers have can be traced directly to the top. Since taking over as an interim coach for the final six games of the 2008 campaign following the resignation of Tommy Bowden as head coach, Swinney has struck a positive tone and an “us against the world” type mentality.For Austin, a junior lineman on that 2008 squad, it was a hard pill to swallow in losing the man who recruited him to Clemson.“We were excited about it,” Austin said of Swinney’s promotion from wide receivers coach to interim head coach, “but, still, it was a tough time. Coach Bowden was the one who came to your house and was sitting there. I was recruited by Brad Scott so I knew Brad Scott and Tommy Bowden a lot better than I knew Dabo Swinney.“Now, the guy who recruited you had now been replaced. It was a tough time; just trying to right that ship and keep guys focused and trying to maximize our season.”By the time South Carolina came to town for the regular season finale in 2008, the Tigers were coming off a loss to Georgia Tech. Rumors swirled as to whether this would be Swinney’s final game. The day before the contest, Scott who was Clemson’s offensive line coach, gathered his players in what Austin said was an emotional meeting as Scott, who himself had been fired at USC as head coach, laid the cards on the table about the next day’s game and what could be in store for the future.When Clemson defeated their in-state rival, 31-14, Austin and wide out Tyler Grisham hoisted Swinney on their shoulders while carrying him across the field. Shortly thereafter, then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips pulled the interim from Swinney’s title and named him head coach.“For a guy like Terry Don Phillips to take the stand and name him head coach was big,” Austin said. “I felt like we took that next step in ’09 and lost a close one to Georgia Tech. We didn’t win the conference, but we took that next step. In 2010, they went 7-7 but lost all seven games by a less than a touchdown including to Auburn, the eventual national champs, on a missed field goal.“That’s what has been so special to win a national championship, to see the excitement and celebrating with a lot of former teammates; guys who were here for the transition. All the guys who take so much pride and ownership in helping the program get to where it is now and winning the national championship.”Austin said Swinney has brought a positive and upbeat attitude to Clemson which have become hallmarks of the program. Even after the 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh in the 10th game of the 2016 season, Swinney never veered the ship in a different direction. He stayed the course, as did his team.“The loss was tough on our guys but that was also the same week that several other (ranked) teams lost and we knew we were still in the mix,” Austin said of the loss to the Panthers. “We knew if we won our division, won the conference and won our state championship that we would have a chance to play for it. Our guys kept that focus on things that we could control. That’s a credit to Coach Swinney’s leadership and managing all those dynamics very well.“Coach Swinney has done a great job both last year and this year in that every week is a one-game season. That’s the approach our players and our coaches have had. There was more media attention leading up to the national championship game but for us, it was just like a normal game except you had a couple extra days to prepare.“That mindset has really helped our guys no matter whether you’re playing Troy, S.C. State or, Florida State, South Carolina, Louisville or, Alabama.”Another Swinney mantra has been winning the turnover battle. In games in which the Tigers had one or less turnovers this past season, they held a huge advantage in points. In those games in which they turned the ball over two or more times, Clemson struggled.Ironically, Clemson had two turnovers on Monday night while Alabama did not cough up the ball but still lost. As the Tigers prepared to face Ohio State on New Year’s Eve, their head coach said keeping the ball from hitting the ground would be a determining factor in Clemson’s final fate.“We felt good about our matchup with Ohio State and Coach Swinney said, ‘Listen boys, I’m telling you that if we win the turnover margin, we’ll be the national champs,’” Austin said. “We were plus-one in turnover margin against Ohio State and you saw the result of it.”
Coming home and what’s next
Winning a national championship in any sport is sweet. When it comes by coaching at your alma mater, it takes things to another level.Austin said he was overwhelmed but hardly surprised when the team bus rolled into Memorial Stadium and he saw the sea of orange-clad fans waiting on the team. But it was not just the fans who, Austin said, have been an integral part of the program. There are those people behind the scenes who have played a role, no matter how significant, in the success story over the years.“Ben Boulware said it so well after the game that, yes, this team won the national championship but there had been a host of men and former players who laid the foundation and the building blocks to get Clemson to where it is now,” he said. “Everyone in IPTAY, the board of directors, the trustees, the coaches, the ADs (athletic directors), the athletic department … everyone who is involved and puts their hands on this program …“We got back (Tuesday) night and the cleaning ladies, the people who work for Aramark (food, facilities and service), the food staff, and the bus drivers were there … everyone who has had a hand in this program. It was just really neat to see that and just to see people who have been Clemson fans their whole life and were there in 1981. A lot of people take a lot of pride and take a lot of ownership in this, that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of it.”More visible is a man like Swinney along with strength coach Joey Batson, who was on the hot seat from fans during Austin’s playing days, and trainer Danny Poole, who has been around Clemson sports for some 30 years. Those are the men who Austin felt good about in the aftermath of the title win. “Guys like that who are so invested in the program and care about our players. It’s nice to see the fruits of their labors come to fruition,” Austin said.And while the Tigers and their fans continue to celebrate their achievement, Austin said that even had Clemson’s bid come up short on Monday, the philosophy which Swinney has instilled in his players would have allowed them to get past what would have been a another bitter pill to swallow.“Did we want to win the game? Absolutely but our lives weren’t going to be over if we lost,” Austin said. “Having that proper perspective allows you to take the pressure off, enjoy the moment and soak it all in.”Having added a national championship to his resume should only enhance Austin’s chances of landing a full-time assistant coaching job at the collegiate level. In addition to his college playing and coaching career, he played for six NFL teams including two stints with the New England Patriots’ practice squad. He saw regular season action with both the Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers.The two-time All-ACC lineman and his wife Margaret are the parents of three youngsters. Austin, who said he is not a candidate for the vacant head coaching post at Camden High School where he was a freshman on Jimmy Neal’s 2001 undefeated AAA state championship team, was unsure as to what his immediate future holds when the subject was broached.“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ve had conversations this fall with different coaches in the building here that I respect who are helping to walk me through that process. “We’ve made preparations to be here for a third year. I finished my master’s in December and I have re-applied for a new (degree.) Talking to people in this business it seems like it’s not about going to the (American Football Coaches Assn.) convention and handing out 500 cards but a lot of it is doing the best job you can where your are; as Coach Swinney always says, ‘Bloom where you’re planted’ and try to be the best GA you can be so that when opportunities arise, you can pursue them.“We have our eyes and ears open and if we have a chance to interview, we’re going to do that. Right now, though, we’re making preparations to be here. We have recruiting meetings (Thursday) and official visits set for this weekend. In the meantime, if anything becomes available, we’ll pursue that and then, prayerfully consider what the next chapter in our life will be.”


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