CLEMSON – During his National Signing Day news conference, Dabo Swinney brought in a sheet of paper reminding him Clemson’s 2009 class was ranked No. 37 by Rivals.com. It was Swinney’s means to illustrate that a recruiting ranking didn’t correlate to those players being contributing parts – and in Tajh Boyd’s case, instrumental – to Clemson returning to the heights of the last few seasons.
While that point has merit in the proper context, you can juxtapose the 2009 and newly minted 2014 class to demonstrate just how far the Tigers have come recruiting-wise during Swinney’s tenure.
The Tigers signed 22 players on Feb. 5, posting the nation’s No. 13-ranked class as calculated by Rivals.com.
That’s the second-highest acclaimed haul for Swinney, trumped only by a 2011 class that finished No. 8 while bringing in seven more players.
The difference, though, is the gradual increase in recruits Clemson has nabbed in formidable competitions with others regularly producing top-15 classes.
In 2009, the Tigers beat Ohio State and Oregon for Boyd, who lived up to his recruiting billing. But otherwise, the Tigers were never seriously challenged for the majority of Swinney’s initial “Dandy Dozen.” They led from start to finish for in-state defensive end Malliciah Goodman, while the suitors for departing senior standouts Brandon Thomas, Spencer Shuey and Tyler Shatley were programs Clemson would have no business losing to on the trail.
The new standard by which recruiting is measured, particularly in the Southeast, is how programs fare relative to that of their SEC competition. And in that regard, Clemson’s 2014 class paints a favorable picture for the program’s direction.
The headliner, of course, was Gainesville (Ga.) five-star quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson provided Clemson with signing day splash with his February 2012 commitment, yet more improbably stuck with his pledge for two years. There were a few shaky periods in between – most notably his secretive 2013 Memorial Day visit to Auburn – but the Tigers managed to use that incident to firm him up for good. Ohio State and Georgia also took their runs at Watson during the process, yet the persistent questions about whether offensive coordinator Chad Morris would bolt didn’t affect the final outcome.
Having Watson in the fold laid the foundation for Clemson’s class to be defined by its renewed presence in the state of Georgia.
Two years earlier, the Tigers failed to sign a Georgia prospect for the first time since 1991. One could argue Georgia is a more important recruiting ground for Clemson than its own state, Florida or North Carolina because of the density of talent within its proximity.
Watson’s presence was one of the factors that then got the attention of Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek receiver Demarre Kitt, who would decommit from Georgia that subsequent spring and eventually choose Clemson over Georgia and Auburn.
The Tigers wound up with five of the state’s top-15 prospects in Georgia, more than either the flagship Bulldogs (four) or Auburn (two).
Not without coincidence, the majority were offensive skill players. Savannah (Ga.) Calvary Baptist tight end Milan Richard – nephew of Georgia great Herschel Walker, and whose parents were Bulldogs track stars in the mid-1980s – picked Clemson despite owning a Georgia offer. Thomasville (Ga.) Thomas County Central running back Adam Choice, Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy receiver Kyrin Priester and Buford (Ga.) linebacker Korie Rogers also hail from the Peach State.
“That’s something where once you get a marquee player like Deshaun committed to Clemson, other recruits look at Clemson as a school they’re definitely interested in,” recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott said. “Great players want to go play with great players. So anytime you can go get one of those premiere players with an early commitment, it allows you to build a really good class around him. And hopefully we’ll be able to do that with this 2015 class shortly.”
Clemson has already secured six 2015 commitments, none more significant than the signing day splash levied by the pledge of five-star Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt. Hyatt’s uncle is Dan Benish, who started at defensive tackle for the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team.
Ohio State, Georgia and Auburn all pushed hard for Hyatt. But at a minimum, Hyatt’s early commitment marks the continuation of Clemson’s 2014 resurgence in Georgia and stands to go down as the program’s most established offensive line signing since Camden (N.J.) Woodrow Wilson’s Kelvin Hankins was a Parade first-team All-American in 1987.
To that end, Clemson figures to get as much of its 2015 class taken care of before the start of fall camp, just as it did with the 2014 group.
No Drama Was Good News
All but three of their 23 signees were secured before Sept. 1, and one of those three – Blythewood (S.C.) linebacker Jalen Williams – was a foregone conclusion anyhow. The player most likely to contribute as a first-year freshman, dynamic Tarpon Springs (Fla.) East Lake receiver Artavis Scott, selected Clemson after attending its June camp and was one of five January enrollees, including Watson.
It might have made for a relatively anticlimactic recruiting finish. But after losing blue-chippers such as Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), Demarcus Robinson (Florida) and Elijah Daniel (Ole Miss) in the final months of the 2013 cycle, no news represented good news this time around.
“No drama, that’s what I like,” Swinney said. “I like to have guys that know what they’re going to do and have no issues. …
“Last year we had our fair share of decommitments. That was very frustrating. But things work out the way they're supposed to. You’re talking about a bunch of high-character guys in this class. We are blessed. Because we’re getting great players, great people and great families. I think that’s been a big part of it.”
Swinney and his staff’s most commendable recruiting efforts down the stretch were convincing star defensive end Vic Beasley and middle linebacker Stephone Anthony to return for their senior seasons instead of bolting to be early-round NFL draft picks.
Still, the Tigers did close with two notable additions. Four-star Durham (N.C.) Hillside receiver Trevion Thompson eschewed a postseason push from N.C. State to join former teammate Korrin Wiggins as Clemson’s second late Hillside steal in as many classes.
Then on National Signing Day, Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) hybrid end/linebacker Richard Yeargin III revealed a commitment to Clemson he made two weeks earlier. Yeargin committed to Notre Dame in August but took an official visit to Clemson in late November and eventually withdrew his Fighting Irish pledge Jan. 24.
“Our brand is totally different than it was five years ago,” Swinney said. “People are either talking bad or talking good about Clemson. But they’re all talking about Clemson.”