CLEMSON -- Membership in one of Clemson's smallest and therefore most elite clubs does have its privileges.
The flip side of being one of the Tigers' mere nine recruited scholarship seniors is the negative connotation that has come with perceived weakness in numbers.
"They talk about us first, and if they're handing out food, we get it first," right tackle Christian Capote said.
"But we are the leaders, and should be the first ones to be looked on for a leadership role."
With a third consecutive top-25 recruiting class already rooting its way into Clemson's depth chart, the battle for locker room respect is actually being waged by the veterans, not the newcomers.
Only once in the last 30 years (1985) have the Tigers entered a season with fewer recruited scholarship seniors. Of the nine, five are ensured a spot in the starting lineup: Capote, left tackle Barry Richardson, left guard Chris McDuffie and linebackers Tramaine Billie and Nick Watkins.
The relative void led coach Tommy Bowden to post leadership search as one of the main items on the fall camp to-do list.
Last season, Clemson witnessed what the lack of sufficiently strong vocal presences could mean once adversity struck. When the proverbial heart and soul of the defense, senior linebacker Anthony Waters, went down with a season-ending injury in the opener, the Tigers lost the player who held everyone else accountable, and it showed down the stretch.
Players most frequently pegged as heirs apparent are juniors -- tailback James Davis, defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson and defensive end Phillip Merling.
They emerged as the likeliest candidates based on summer workouts, and Bowden said he considers the list fluid until more concrete evidence is gathered.
"This is the only time during the year when we will (practice) eight days in a row, so we will have a pretty good idea about our leadership and how it surfaces with a little fatigue, pain and soreness," Bowden said this week. "A lot of that will be determined by the end of the eighth day."
Long before Aug. 11, Clemson expected its shortage.
The proverbial cycle caught up to the Tigers with its 2003 recruiting class, as there were a smaller number of scholarships available to offer than usual because of larger predecessor classes and limited attrition.
With skepticism about Bowden's future a hot topic after Clemson was pummeled by Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl, the Tigers signed 18 prospects in a class regarded as mediocre by recruiting services.
Scout.com ranked the class at No. 43 nationally, while Rivals.com had it at No. 67 -- behind the likes of Temple, Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State, among others.
"There were a lot of reasons for that," said linebackers coach David Blackwell, who arrived at Clemson to replace departed Rick Stockstill as recruiting coordinator shortly thereafter. "Coming off the Tangerine Bowl was probably a hard class to recruit."
The two highest-rated signees were touted cornerback Brian Staley (who never qualified academically) and linebacker Maurice Nelson, who served as an injury replacement starter last year before forgoing his final year of eligibility.
Six class members left the team having made little contribution on the field: tight end Zach Green and safety Roy Walker (remained in school), receiver Chris Jefferson (former Western Carolina transfer), lineman Clint LaTray (Stephen F. Austin), running back Brandon Nolen (Wagner) and cornerback Robert Reese.
For a class its size, it actually produced a fair share of serviceable players, just no difference-makers. Defensive back C.J. Gaddis, kicker Jad Dean and right tackle Marion Dukes, all contributors last season, exhausted their eligibility.
Billie, Watkins, Capote and McDuffie are part of the class, as is Brandon Pilgrim, who is vying for the starting right guard job. Kwam Williams is expected to be a backup at defensive end.
Three of this year's nine scholarship seniors came later; Richardson and reserve receiver La'Donte Harris are 2004 class members who skipped redshirting, and safety Chris Russell transferred from junior college.
Four walk-on seniors have been put on scholarship but not included in the previous tally: snapper Colin Leonard, tight end Jermaine Martin, defensive tackle Bryan Baker and receiver Chris Wade.
"It's a little frustrating when younger guys are getting pointed out, but our class is just low right now," Williams said.
"What we're doing as seniors this year is just trying to pull everyone on board. If they feel like they can lead, then do it. If what you're saying is right, then you're a leader."