K’Von Wallace has a national-championship ring.
He played 109 snaps — and made six tackles — for the 2016 Clemson football team that bested Alabama for the title.
But Wallace, heading into his second season as a starter at strong safety, wants to play a bigger role in a championship season, the way he did as a senior at Highland Springs High School — and this could be the year.
“We’re hungry,” Wallace, now a rising junior, said last week before a Clemson spring practice. “We’ve always been hungry… We have a chip on our shoulder.”
The Tigers ended last season with a loss to Alabama in the national semifinals, but with most of that team returning, Dabo Swinney’s program will remain a contender.
Wallace said he and his teammates believe this year’s squad could be the best defense in the nation — and maybe the best the school has ever had.
“I know this team is capable of being the No. 1 team in the country in all categories on defense, and being the No. 1 defense in Clemson history,” Wallace, a two-way star when Highland Springs won the state title in 2015, said. “That’s our goal. We’ve talked about this defense being the No. 1 defense in Clemson history. We’re hungry to go get it.”
That task certainly became more attainable when three defensive linemen — including end Clelin Ferrell, another Richmond native — opted to return to Clemson instead of entering the NFL draft. In all, the Tigers return nine defensive starters from last year’s 12-2 team, including Wallace, who started the final five games.
Since the start of the 2011 season, the Tigers are 82-15, have won four ACC titles and a national championship. They’ve reached the College Football Playoff each of the past three years. Now, with a loaded roster that is expected to continue that streak, the challenge for Swinney and veteran players such as Wallace and Ferrell, is to make sure the team doesn’t look ahead to the playoffs — or take them for granted.
Ferrell said the program has to guard against that mindset.
“You really do. A lot of times talent can kind of become the headline of what people feel like is going to make you win,” Ferrell said. “You got to realize that talent plays a big role, but you’ve got to put the work in. You’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to love it.”
To re-emphasize that each year, Swinney’s program uses the acronym PAW — like the Tiger’s paw that adorns its helmets. It stands for “passionate about winning.” The coach divides the year into phases, and says each one has to be attacked with the same ferocity and sense of purpose, or the winning won’t come.
Right now, as Clemson approaches Saturday’s annual spring game, it’s in the “get ready” phase. That’s what Swinney labels the spring and offseason.
“We don’t want to be focusing in the championship phase right now,” Swinney said last week. “I don’t really sit around and think about November or December or the playoff. I’m just focused on having a great spring practice today. That’s just the mindset that has served me well and I think has served our team well. And they’ve all bought into that.”
Older players make sure the younger players follow their lead. On a team full of boisterous, often outspoken leaders, Wallace takes a different tack from Ferrell or notoriously talkative senior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.
“He’s more of a quiet assassin that way,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Takes care of himself.”
Last spring and fall, the 6-foot, 195-pound Wallace worked at cornerback. Then, during the season, he spent time there and at nickel back, before moving to strong safety after an injury to free safety Tanner Muse midway through the year forced Van Smith to move to free safety.
All three players return for Clemson, but since Wallace was consistent in his tackling and his coverage at strong safety, “Why that screw that up?” Venables responds, when asked why he’s keeping Wallace at that spot going into the 2018 season.
“It helps me to be a better player to focus on one thing,” Wallace said. “Just focusing on one position. Learning that one position. Studying that one position. Watching film differently on one particular thing.
“I feel like I’m a rangy, physical guy. I’m aggressive. I’m smart. I feel like I have a high football IQ. I feel like I can make a lot of plays there.”
And perhaps be a big part of another championship.