NCF On The Trail: Clemson Tigers

On The Trail Show: Saivion Smith commitment

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
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Top-ranked athlete Saivion Smith, the No. 19 overall player in the ESPN Junior 300, joined RecruitingNation to announce his decision.

Quarterbacks are committing earlier and earlier in the recruiting process. With 15 of the 27 signal-callers in the ESPN Junior 300 already having given verbal pledges, there is increased pressure to get a top quarterback in the fold early. Five programs are ahead of the curve headed into the spring evaluation period.

Ultimate ESPN 300: Who's next? 

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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It’s never too early to look ahead to next year. Here are seven prospects in the 2015 class who could make their mark in future editions of the Ultimate ESPN 300.

DT Daylon Mack (Texas A&M): Last year it was DE Myles Garrett who made a splash for the Aggies, and Mack is expected to do the same in 2015. While Texas A&M returns some quality young defensive tackles, none has Mack's combination of explosive power and quickness plus the ability to be a disruptive force in the backfield.

S Derwin James (FSU):

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Thad Turnipseed knows a thing or two about the power of recruiting, having come from Alabama. The Crimson Tide won consecutive recruiting (and national) titles in the final two seasons of Turnipseed’s 11 years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the associate athletic director for special projects and the director of football external affairs. His position -- Clemson’s director of recruiting and external affairs -- is a bit different, but the returns so far have been great for Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, who brought his former college teammate aboard in 2013.

ESPN.com caught up with Turnipseed recently to talk about how he helped orchestrate a 2015 Clemson class that ranked fourth nationally.

What has Dabo Swinney tapped into that has allowed [Clemson recruiting] to take off in recent years?

Thad Turnipseed: He calls it ‘Clemson Google.’ Everybody has a recruiting board, per se. Dabo's different. Of course he's highly intelligent. Most coaches look at that board and say, 'I want my top two guys on the board. My top three guys on the board.' Dabo doesn't care about that. He wants to know who's the best fit. The biggest difference is that the culture here, now after six years in place, kind of recruits itself. You get the right kid in town, and they feel and see it. Sometimes it takes a couple visits, but that's what he does different. Look at the Super Bowl. There's only like two- or three- or four-stars on the [participating teams]. But the culture, the character, we spend more of my effort on.

Is he a Clemson guy? A good fit? What's he say on social media? It's illegal for me to evaluate talent, so I don't care who the coaches put on the board. Who they put on it, my job is to help recruit him better, get better graphics, get the videos done, be in-touch with them more often when they're on campus, give them more attention. That's what I do. Dabo, he's more concerned: 'OK, when they're here, what are they like? What are their grades? Are they good people? What's their family like? Are they going to be a fit here, first and foremost? And then, are they a good player?' And that's the No. 1 difference in Dabo Swinney and anyone I've been around, because everybody else wants the best player. You don't know who the best player is for two, three years down the road. It's a guess. That's probably the best way I can describe it.

Alabama's been the gold standard in recruiting. How much of what you took from there is applied to the vision you guys have at Clemson?

TT: Our two programs are completely different; great in their own ways. I'm not saying we're any better, they're any better. It's just different. I saw the structure, I saw how Coach [Nick] Saban did it with the recruiting room, boards, the travel, just being around it. So I probably took 40 percent of what they had. The structure's in place. But we knew we had to get more mail, we knew we had to get in touch with them more, we knew we had to have a better experience in their ear. We touch them better. We do have a more organized board. We're in touch with the mailouts and the graphics, and now we have a video department. Alabama created their whole brand, the 'Built by Bama' brand and all of that, so I brought a lot of the branding concepts here that are totally different than the concepts at Alabama. I think it's like 40-60 -- 60 percent Clemson.

The uniqueness is the culture here. Most schools don't recruit to a culture. They recruit to a system. I brought every freshman in last year. I said: Why did you come to Clemson? I was trying to get ideas to recruit better. Deshaun Watson and Artavis Scott were the first two I brought in, and they said, 'First, Thad, it just felt real here.' And I know that sounds like recruiting talk to you, but it just feels different here. And then second, I go to the board, I say 'OK, I'm about to start mailing all these 2016 kids when it's legal, on Sept. 1.' I said: How much of an impact did that have on you? They said, 'That was nice for about a month, but by then we got so much. What stuck with me the most was the mail I got in ninth grade. That's when I first started getting the mail.' Well, we wouldn't mail that much. So now what do we do? We mail 12 times a year to ninth- and 10th-graders. Now, all you can do is legally mail them camp brochures and questionnaires or NCAA compliance material. So we just divide that up 12 times. That's what Alabama was doing good -- staying in touch with them as much as they could legally. So that's what I'm making sure we do.

How have you seen the operation grow in terms of personnel?

TT: I'm breaking it up two different ways: Event management/mail operations, and then recruiting war room -- managing the board, our data management, making sure who's on the board, the right people are ordered the right way for the coaches. So I hired an event management girl named Jessica [Carroll], as soon as she graduated. [Carroll and I] did all the student help until this summer, we got to hire the 10 extra students. And then this December, we were allowed to hire a second full-time person, named Jordan [Sorrells]. He helps me in the recruiting room.

Another thing I learned from Deshaun Watson and Artavis, they didn't open the mail. They said some people got creative. If it was handwritten mail they'd open it, but everything they do is on social media. So what do we do? Jordan spends three or four hours a day scanning everything we mail out and direct-messaging it to them through their social media. So all of our [2016] guys, we'll send out 150 direct messages. That's the only way they look at it. If we're going to spend the effort to make it, let's make sure we spend the effort to get it to them. And why Dabo calls it 'Clemson Google' is because of that culture factor I was telling you about: Everybody he recruits, he wants to follow their social media, do Google checks on them constantly to make sure there's no issues with them. So we literally Google all those names constantly, we get on their social media, and that's how we give him a report that says, 'Hey, here's everybody the coaches have on the board, here's how they rank character and academically.'

What’s the next step for Clemson? How high do you think you guys can go?

TT: I hate to say it because you just think it's coach-talk or recruiting-talk, but the only limitations we put on Clemson are the ones we put on ourselves. We're as good as anybody out there, and we're starting to believe we're as good as anybody out there, and when we get that belief -- because we're already there -- we put that belief with it. I think we're as good as anybody, including Alabama. They're the gold standard. I truly, truly believe Coach Swinney will be the man in college football, starting the next couple of years, for years to come. I think as we brand him along with Clemson, then we can go hand-pick some others maybe a little further out of our geographic region that we normally recruit hard in. And that will only continue to build during his time here at Clemson.

Clemson reloads at receiver again

February, 11, 2015
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Clemson has never been shy about playing true freshmen -- most especially at receiver.

The Tigers have been quite successful using their young guys at this spot since Dabo Swinney took over as full-time head coach in 2009. DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins set school freshman receiving marks in their debut seasons, and just last season, Artavis Scott led the team in receptions (76) and touchdown catches (8).

Though Clemson returns four of its top five receivers in 2015, do not be surprised if Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud III make an instant impact. Cain, an ESPN 300 prospect, was the nation's No. 2 receiver in the Class of 2015; McCloud, another ESPN 300 recruit, was the No. 12-rated athlete. Another four-star receiver, Shadell Bell, is enrolled in school and will participate in spring practice.

"We’re seeing some of these top elite receivers and defensive backs coming in and they’re college-ready, where maybe six, seven years ago you didn’t see that quite as much," said Jeff Scott, who has served as Clemson's receivers coach and now adds co-offensive coordinator to his job duties. "We’ve had a lot of success with those guys coming in and playing early. That reputation is one reason we have the opportunity to sign a lot of talented guys. Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud are as good as any receivers we’ve signed here at Clemson. They’ve got big shoes to fill, but they’re competitors, very talented guys.

"The biggest challenge will be learning the offense and how we do things. Once they learn that, our job is to get the ball in their hands, let them go play and do what they do. We feel like at this level, we have the opportunity to sign guys that are talented enough to come in and make an impact as freshmen. We see an opportunity this year with those guys."

Watkins and Hopkins ended up becoming first-round NFL picks. Martavis Bryant, who also played as a true freshman with Watkins in 2011, was a fourth-round pick. Clemson is clearly doing a good job not only bringing in talented players, but also then maximizing their potential. Player development is crucial to any team's success.

The way the players have been developed at this spot -- knowing how integral they are to the success of the high-powered Clemson offense -- shows not only in the stats they put up but in their performance at the next level.

Here is a look at true freshmen receivers who have played at Clemson since 2009:

2014

Artavis Scott: 76 catches, 965 yards, eight TDs. Led team in receptions and receiving touchdowns.

Demarre Kitt: Five catches, 47 yards.

2013

Mike Williams: 20 catches, 316 yards, six TDs.

2011

Sammy Watkins: 82 catches, 1,219 yards, 12 TDs. All-purpose: 2,288 yards and 13 total TDs. Led team in all categories. ACC Rookie of the Year, AP All-American.

Martavis Bryant: 10 catches, 305 yards, four TDs.

Adam Humphries: 15 catches, 130 yards.

Charone Peake: Four catches, 71 yards.

2010

DeAndre Hopkins: 52 catches, 637 yards, four TDs. Led team in all categories.
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It’s been seven years since a team other than Florida State or Clemson won the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and after the Seminoles and Tigers each signed a top-five recruiting class this year, the balance of power doesn’t appear poised to shift any time soon.

That might be a problem for the ACC overall. With FSU and Clemson jockeying for command of a conference that has struggled to keep up appearances compared with the neighboring SEC, consolidating power at the top while the rest of the league picks up the scraps might not be the best way to convince the public -- or future playoff committees -- that there is more to the ACC than its top two teams.

But what if a great rivalry at the top also means a boon for the teams farther down the ladder? Consider it trickle-down economics for the college football set.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson coach Dabo Swinney, left, and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher lead elite programs that are forcing the rest of the ACC to keep pace.
The last time the ACC signed two top-five classes was in 2008, back when the playoff was a pipe dream, conference realignment was but a whisper, and Deshaun Watson was in the seventh grade. Miami and Clemson put together the nation’s two best signing classes, but neither program saw immediate dividends. An NCAA investigation unmoored any hope the Hurricanes could return to national prominence, and Clemson parted ways with its head coach just eight months after he signed the country’s No. 2 class.

At the same time, the balance of power was shifting in the SEC. Alabama had hired Nick Saban the year before, and by the end of 2008, the Crimson Tide were back in the national spotlight. Auburn, meanwhile, finished 5-7, and the gauntlet was thrown.

Over the next few years, the longtime rivals traded blows -- on the recruiting trail, on the fund-raising circuit, and on the field. The SEC was already the nation’s preeminent conference, but investment in maintaining that success grew exponentially. Alabama and Auburn paced the growth, but if Georgia and Tennessee and LSU and Florida wanted to keep pace, they had to go all-in, too. Cut-throat coaching changes, major renovations in facilities, bloody recruiting battles, huge pay raises for assistant coaches -- these became the norm. It was an arms race, and the two teams at the top set the pace.

The same groundwork isn’t there for the ACC just yet, but what Florida State and Clemson are doing could set a similar precedent. Just look at what’s happened in the past few months.

NC State had its best signing day in years.

Virginia Tech signed a solid class in spite of hot-seat rumors for head coach Frank Beamer. That group joins an already outstanding group of rising freshmen in Blacksburg.

Duke signed its best class under David Cutcliffe, too, while renovations to the stadium are ongoing.

North Carolina is still fending off its own NCAA black cloud, but to fix its disastrous defense, it brought in the same coach who engineered Auburn’s national title in 2010.

Overall last week, the ACC had six teams finish in the top 30 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings (the most by any conference other than the SEC), had 12 in the top 50, and saw Louisville, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all jump at least 13 spots from the previous year’s rankings.

Meanwhile, FSU and Clemson keep chugging along, raising the bar again and again. The Seminoles will send more players to the NFL combine this year than any other program in the nation. Clemson just announced a $75 million investment in upgrading its athletics facilities. These two programs push the goal line a little further down the field, and everyone else is forced to keep pace.

That is not to suggest the ACC is poised to change perceptions on the national level just yet. The league signed 47 members of the ESPN 300 this year, which would sound pretty nice if the SEC hadn’t nabbed 116. Those six ACC programs that finished among the top 30 signing classes still represent just half of the SEC’s tally. North Carolina and Miami still must escape NCAA purgatory and build consistent winners, Virginia Tech must capitalize on its young talent to salvage Beamer’s job, and the young coaches at NC State and Wake Forest need to prove they can develop the talent they’re bringing in.

But there is a standard being set at the top, with Florida State and Clemson upping the ante in recruiting, player development and financial investment in their programs, and that’s good for everyone. It’s not Auburn-Alabama yet, and it probably never will be, but it’s a spotlight on a conference that has long coveted a bigger stage, and it’s a pace-setter for the second tier of the league that now needs to run a bit faster just to keep up.
Jeff Scott woke up early Wednesday morning and got in his car to drive in to work, a big day ahead. It started to hit him this would be his last signing day as Clemson recruiting coordinator.

Since 2009, he has helped Dabo Swinney put together one top-notch class after another, all of them Top 20 classes; five straight in the Top 15. The 2015 group, however, is their finest effort.

ESPN RecruitingNation placed Clemson at No. 4 -- its highest ranking since 2008. It also is the highest ranking under Swinney. There is little doubt the Tigers have been building for this moment. When Swinney became full-time head coach, he laid out his vision for recruiting and the program, built on a strong foundation with strong relationships.

The elite athletes and victories have followed. Clemson just finished its fourth straight season with 10 or more wins, and has become a Top 25 mainstay, bolstering the cause.

"What that does is it sends a message to these recruits and to their families that Clemson is here, and Clemson is going to be a contender, and Clemson is not going anywhere," Scott told ESPN.com. "That top-tier athlete, we have signed our share of those the last five or six years, but there’s a higher concentration of those overall in this class, and it’s just because they’ve seen the product Clemson’s put out, not only in the Top-15 finishes, but also three top-10 years in APR graduation rate. All that really resonates and has come together to put together one of the best classes we’ve ever signed here at Clemson."

Clemson signed nine of the top 150 players in the ESPN rankings, its highest number since 2008. It all started with its highest rated player, offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, ranked No. 18 in the ESPN 300. Hyatt committed on signing day in 2014, setting the tone for the rest of the class.

"He became the cowbell for this 2015 class," Scott said. "Being a very highly rated, highly thought of player, we were able to build a lot of this class around him and his early commitment. He, along with Jake Fruhmorgen, Zach Giella and then right here in our home state Noah Green -- we feel those are four of the best offensive linemen in the country, and all four are here in January."

Clemson has a school-record 15 players enrolled early. Because the program just graduated so many seniors, they had the ability to take freshmen who wanted to get a jump on their collegiate careers. Clemson had 16 spots available for January, filling all but one.

So many openings also made Clemson appealing this recruiting cycle. Recruits know they will have the opportunity to play right away -- even on the offensive and defensive lines, the areas that Clemson targeted heavily this cycle.

They also happen to be the most difficult to fill with true freshmen. But being in school early means they will be able to participate not only in spring practice, but also get a jump on strength and conditioning so they can compete for playing time come August. Of the 15 mid-year signees, six are offensive or defensive linemen.

The work is not over, of course. Just like last year, Clemson picked up commitments on signing day Wednesday, including running back Tavien Feaster (No. 13 ESPN Junior 300). But new recruiting coordinator Brandon Streeter is spearheading the 2016 class and beyond, as Scott transitions to co-offensive coordinator with Tony Elliott.

It is a move Scott is happy to make, though he did have mixed emotions Wednesday.

"It is bittersweet, but there’s no better way to go out than with this class this year," Scott said.
"Signing day delivers usual intrigue and drama"

The headline that capped the madcap fun that is the first Wednesday of every February did not apply to the ACC this year.

That had to be a relief to coaches across the league.

While No. 1-rated ESPN 300 prospect Byron Cowart dawdled between Auburn and Florida, the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 each withstood their share of nationally televised signing day announcements, flips and flops.

In ACC country, nobody had to wait on a hat choice. Clemson finished up its No. 4 class by mid-morning with nary a surprise. Of course, it helps that 15 of its freshmen had already enrolled, including five-star offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt.

Florida State did not have to wait on pins and needles for wavering recruits, either. The Noles had eight early enrollees themselves, including elite players Josh Sweat, George Campbell and Derwin James.

As FSU reporter Jared Shanker wrote:
"A program once known for its signing-day surges had no surprises as all 20 commitments faxed their letters of intent by mid-morning. Even the signing-day addition of ESPN 300 safety Marcus Lewis was mostly expected, capping the nation’s No. 2 class at 21 signees."

The same went for Virginia Tech, which had nearly its entire Top 25 class ready to sign for weeks. The Hokies had seven early enrollees, but several commits withstood late offers -- including tackle Mike Arnold -- to hold firm.

"We had one guy make a decision to join our class in the last two weeks,” Virginia Tech recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “The rest of them have been committed. We held on to this class, and I think we're really proud of that."

It was an unusual feeling, considering every coach is prepared for the twists and turns that come with 18-year-olds making big decisions about their future.

“You have those signing day moments every year,” Stinespring said. “That's what you expect. You hope they're to a minimum. This is one we really felt good throughout with this class. I like for it to always be that way, but we know it's probably not going to go that way often.”

Louisville may have provided the most drama not only on Wednesday but in the days leading up to signing day: first offering troubled defensive end Devonte Fields, then coming under scrutiny for asking long-committed back Matt Colburn to grayshirt.

On signing day itself, Louisville held on to commitments from defensive end G.G. Robinson and quarterback Lamar Jackson after late pushes from SEC schools (Auburn for Robinson; Florida for Jackson). The Cards lost just one player, defensive end Sheldrick Redwine flipped to Miami.

Still, Louisville finished with the No. 30 class in the ESPN RecruitingNation rankings, as 12 ACC teams finished in the top 50.
  • No. 2 Florida State
  • No. 4 Clemson
  • No. 23 Miami
  • No. 24 North Carolina
  • No. 25 Virginia Tech
  • No. 30 Louisville
  • No. 33 NC State
  • No. 41 Georgia Tech
  • No. 42 Wake Forest
  • No. 45 Duke
  • No. 46 Virginia
  • No. 48 Pittsburgh

"It's a celebration," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after announcing his class Wednesday. "And no drama. That’s the way it ought to be.”

Early commit: RB Tavien Feaster 

February, 5, 2015
Feb 5
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Hours after inking the No. 4 ranked class in the country, Dabo Swinney and staff officially grabbed momentum in the 2016 class by picking up a trio of commitments, including the nation's No. 2-ranked running back, Tavien Feaster.


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Each of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff relied on a freshman or two, and some in valuable positions.

Here are five teams that helped their playoff chances with the recruiting classes signed on national signing day.


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Watch: Dabo Swinney talks Clemson 2015 recruiting class

February, 4, 2015
Feb 4
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Clemson coach Dabo Swinney joins ESPN's Jeannine Edwards to discuss the Tigers' latest recruiting class, which has spent much of the 2015 calendar in the top five nationally.

Completed class: Clemson Tigers

February, 4, 2015
Feb 4
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Clemson has announced its 2015 signing class:

ESPN 300
Mitch Hyatt OT -- North Gwinnett High School GA
Deon Cain WR -- Tampa Bay Tech Senior High FL
Christian Wilkins DT -- Suffield Academy CT
Jake Fruhmorgen OT -- Plant Senior High School FL
Sterling Johnson DT -- Cleveland High School NC
Noah Green OT -- Boiling Springs High School SC
Garrett Williams TE-H -- First Academy FL
Austin Bryant DE -- Thomas County Central High School GA
Clelin Ferrell DE -- Benedictine College Prep VA
Ray-Ray McCloud III ATH -- Sickles High School FL
Mark Fields II CB -- Hough High School NC
Albert Huggins DT -- Orangeburg Wilkinson High School SC
Chad Smith OLB -- Dominion High School VA

Four-stars
Gage Cervenka DT -- Emerald High School SC
Zach Giella OT -- Augusta Christian School GA
Shadell Bell WR -- Columbia High School GA
Kelly Bryant QB-DT -- Wren High School SC
LaSamuel Davis DE -- Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School SC
Van Smith ATH -- Hough High School NC

Three-stars
Kaleb Chalmers CB -- Greenwood High School SC
Tucker Israel QB-DT -- Lake Nona High School FL
Tanner Muse S -- South Point High School NC
Amir Trapp CB -- D. W. Daniel High School SC
Jalen Williams ILB -- Blythewood High School SC
Judah Davis DE -- D. W. Daniel High School SC

Two-stars
J.D. Davis ILB -- D. W. Daniel High School SC
Clemson will likely be inking a top-five-level 2015 class on Wednesday. And on Saturday, the Tigers added a key piece to their 2016 class in receiver Tavares Chase. Chase becomes the second ESPN Junior 300 commitment for Clemson, with quarterback and No. 98 overall Zerrick Cooper having committed in October.


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Although he is small in stature, ESPN 300 cornerback Mark Fields II is a tough, versatile defensive back who could make an immediate impact for the Clemson Tigers as a nickelback.


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Top 10 instant-impact recruits in 2015 

January, 14, 2015
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With signing day a few weeks away, early enrollees already on campus and the national championship game in the books, which teams are reloading with talent that can hit the field and make an immediate impact?

Here are 10 committed prospect who have the chance to contribute early and often in the 2015 season:


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