Just get them to campus. The stadium known as Death Valley and the rest of Clemson’s attractions will take care of the rest.
That’s the Tigers’ philosophy these days, and it pre-dated January’s breakthrough victory over Alabama for college football’s national championship.
Clemson is now in that rare air where high school coaches call the football office, pitching four- and five-star recruits to the program, rather than the other way around.
Dabo Swinney chuckled a bit Thursday at the ACC Kickoff at Charlotte’s Westin hotel when asked how recruiting has changed since he was named Clemson’s interim coach back in 2008. Swinney was elevated from wide receivers coach – not even a coordinator – and was just trying to hang on long enough to erase “interim” from his title.
Now, as co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott described last winter, if a Clemson recruit can’t get in or de-commits or whatever, the news typically prompts calls from prep coaches trying to get their best players campus visits.
Exhibit A of how things have changed over Swinney’s tenure: Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, who came all the way from Springfield, Mass., to upstate South Carolina. Wilkins reveled in retelling how a New Englander moved south to “Y’all” country.
“It’s been everything I dreamed of, everything I could have hoped for,” said Wilkins, a 6-4, 310-pound junior. “I won a national championship. But I was also challenged off the field. I’ll get a degree in December. I have great teammates challenging me to be my best on the field and off the field as well.”
There is a small circle of college programs in each sport that become so elite they are self-generating. Certainly, North Carolina and Duke men’s basketball qualify, as do Kentucky and Kansas. In college football, that group includes Alabama for sure, plus Ohio State and perhaps Oklahoma.
Clemson is now there. The Tigers lost 77 percent of their offensive production from players who left (many for the NFL) after the national championship. But to listen to Swinney, he is anything but nervous about what he has coming back.
Plug and play
Swinney found it amusing he got so many questions about wide receiver Mike Williams’ departure (to the Los Angeles Chargers) and none about Williams’ logical successor, Deon Cain. Swinney suggested Cain can slip right into a star’s role, similar to how Kevin Dodd did as a pass-rusher after Vic Beasley left for the NFL.
“As our brand has grown, we at least get in a conversation” with most recruiting targets, Swinney said. “We think it’s a special place that sells itself. If we get them to campus (for a visit), we know we’ll get our fair share.”
For all the stars Clemson lost – quarterback Deshaun Watson, Williams, running back Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett among them – there is enough talent left to imagine a third consecutive appearance in the four-team national playoffs.
The offensive line returns four of five starters. There’s an imposing defensive line in Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and phenomenal sophomore Dexter Lawrence.
Lawrence, from the Raleigh suburb of Wake Forest, is 6-5 and 340 pounds, but he’s nimble like a linebacker. It’s conceivable he’ll end up one of the NFL’s top picks once he’s eligible to turn pro. Swinney says plenty of defensive linemen have left Clemson looking like Lawrence, but a rare few showed up on campus with his physique and motor.
Approach and attitude
Wilkins and Lawrence drive each other daily. Swinney said that’s the side benefit of being an elite program; you get to select based not just on talent, but on approach and attitude.
“It’s about not just filling your (recruiting) class, but getting the right guys,” Swinney said. “Guys who fit your culture, who love football. Guys you don’t have to chase into the weight room. Guys who pursue excellence in everything they do.”
Again, the term for this is self-generating. There is peer pressure at Clemson not only to excel athletically, but to progress academically. Watson graduated in 2 1/2 academic years. Lawrence, as much as he played as a freshman, still made honors for his grades.
The right people led to success. Success sets the path to keep signing the right people.
“We wouldn’t have gotten Christian Wilkins seven years ago,” Swinney said. “Now, we’ve got some results that we can share: The academic success, the athletic success.
“We can say, ‘That’s what we do.’”