Clemson running back Jamie Harper took a seat after another afternoon practice and looked over at his teammate Chris Hairston, sitting on a tombstone in the Tigers’ sod cemetery commemorating great road football victories.
“Not too many guys on defense can get around him,” Harper said, nodding toward his 6-foot-7, 325-pound teammate.
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Not many have.
Hairston is the Tigers’ starting left tackle and an Outland Trophy candidate as the nation’s top offensive lineman. He was one the reasons C.J. Spiller was able to do the things he did last year and why Harper and Andre Ellington are expected to pile up big rushing numbers this year.
The irony in Hairston’s story is for such a big player – both physically and in terms of his impact – he went almost unnoticed coming out of Winston-Salem Carver High.
So the next time you see one of those top 100 recruiting lists, it’s worth remembering that Hairston wasn’t on any of them.
“He was certainly under the radar,” said Clemson associate head coach Brad Scott, who was involved in the recruiting of Hairston, the first Clemson signee from Winston-Salem since Perry Tuttle in the late 1970s.
S.C. State, Winston-Salem State and Hampton had shown interest in Hairston, but that was about it. Someone suggested the Tigers take a look at him. By the time he played in the Shrine Bowl, Clemson was on to him.
“I never thought about myself as a big-time player,” Hairston said. “I didn’t think I was entitled to it. I was just playing for my team. I wasn’t thinking about playing at Clemson.”
When Scott made an in-home visit recruiting him, Hairston’s mother, Vickie, asked only about the education her son would get at Clemson. Football would take care of itself.
This summer, Hairston graduated with a degree in business management. More than 30 friends and family members made the trip to see him get his diploma.
They saw a different Hairston.
In his early years at Clemson, he struggled with his weight. He was a solid player but not exceptional.
“You could tell he had something about him, but he wasn’t a real hard worker because he didn’t know,” Scott said. “This year, he’s become a leader for us.”
Last year, Hairston’s metamorphosis began. He was in better condition, and it showed. The Tigers were 9-3 in the games when Hairston was healthy and 0-2 when he was out or limited because of a knee injury. When the Tigers ran for 323 yards and five touchdowns in the ACC championship game against Georgia Tech, they did much of it behind Hairston.
He has given up fast food and worked closely with a nutritionist at Clemson to improve his conditioning. He lost some weight but gained quickness, a valuable tradeoff.
“I feel totally different,” Hairston said.
Understanding the complexities of the game, Scott said, comes easily to Hairston, who loves the feeling of overpowering a defender.
“That’s the name of the game,” Hairston said. “It’s a good feeling when you’re out there with the other guys on the line and it’s all clicking.”
If Hairston has the kind of season he’s projected to have, he likely will have the chance to play in the NFL. He’s heard the talk but tries to ignore it.
“This is my last go-round,” he said. “I want to make it the best year I can and I’m trying to do everything I can to be the best player I can. I want to win a championship before I go out.”