Note: The following appears in the Florida Atlantic football gameday program.
A team’s continued success starts with the consistency and leadership from its veterans along with the development and commitment of its young players. There is no doubting that Clemson football has had continued success, winning 10+ games each of the past three seasons, including two ACC championships.
Players such as R.J. Mickens have been a big part of that success. With early development and steady improvement, Mickens has a chance to make a big impact on a hungry defense.
Mickens grew up in Southlake, Texas and played for Carroll High School, a powerhouse program in the state. He is no stranger to loud environments and intense football.
“High school football definitely prepared me. The competition was really high relative to where I was at. We always had the target on our back, and nothing has changed here. Everyone wants to beat Clemson.”
Despite growing up in Texas, he decided to take his talents eastward to play for the Tigers. He was rated as the No. 12 safety in the country by ESPN and had a number of schools to choose from.
“The relationships with the coaches and what Clemson was doing at the time and who Coach (Dabo) Swinney was played a big part why I chose Clemson.”
Even though he is far from home, Mickens still has someone over his shoulder that he can always rely on, his father, Ray Mickens Sr. The elder Mickens played cornerback at Texas A&M, was selected in the third round by the Jets in the 1996 NFL draft and enjoyed a 10-year NFL career.
“He’s always been there. He’s someone I can go to who always has an answer for everything. I used to not appreciate that as much as I do now. Speaking with someone who’s been there and done that, it’s really helped me a lot. Any time there’s film I need to break down or a question comes up, I can always go to him. It’s been that way my whole life, but getting away from home and being in college has really magnified how important he is and how special he is.”
As for the younger Mickens, he has a chance to thrive in Clemson’s defense in 2023. His performance on the field has improved year after year. In 2022 as a junior, he accumulated 55 tackles, a team-high three interceptions and two pass breakups in 13 games (six starts). He was also named third-team All-ACC by Pro Football Focus. Not only has he developed into an essential player for the Tiger defense, he is also a veteran leader and voice in the locker room.
“That part has definitely grown, but even from last year, I believe it’s grown a lot from this past offseason. I have a lot of knowledge I can pour into the young guys and the young safeties in particular by watching film and pointing out how things should be played. That’s a way I see my role changing as a leader.”
In a secondary filled with experience, #9 pointed to how beneficial it has been to be around his teammates that share the same knowledge as him.
“It’s awesome because our guys know a lot and bring a ton of experience, and we can all learn from each other, whether that’s asking someone a question in the film room or going up there on our own to watch film. With Andrew (Mukuba), Jalyn (Phillips), Tyler (Venables), Sheridan (Jones) and Nate (Wiggins), we’re a bunch of guys who everyone can learn from and gain different perspectives. If you don’t know something, then someone else probably has the answer. It’s been really helpful.”
These veterans with experience are necessary for the locker room. The culture here never changes, and it has been passed down from veterans who have bought in from day one to freshmen learning the ropes. The culture is a big reason why the program has enjoyed such continued success. When asked about the culture at Tiger football, Mickens acknowledged that the culture in place is what makes Clemson unique.
“It’s about the P.A.W. Journey and the man makes the brand. It’s bigger than football and it’s not just about what you can do on the field, but how you can develop as a man. Growing in your faith and business skills is what separates this place from a lot of others, where they’re just worried about football.”
As a senior, Mickens has his eyes set on a national championship, graduating, getting drafted and being a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
Reflecting on what it has meant to play for Clemson, Mickens is very appreciative for all his opportunities and relationships built along the way.
“It means everything to me. Everything I’ve got here, I’ve been welcomed with open arms, including Coach (Brent) Venables and the staff that recruited me. It’s been a great experience, and I’m forever thankful for my time here. And if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything has worked together for the good, and it’s definitely developed me into who I am today.”
There’s no doubting it is Mickens’ time to shine.