How Clemson built a championship program mostly before having top 10 recruiting classes

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

To build a championship football program, Clemson did not need to recruit at a level that stacked up with the elites like Alabama and Ohio State.

The Tigers seldom recruited at a top 10 level until 2015. From when started ranking high school football players in 2002 through the 2014 cycle, Clemson had only one recruiting class finish in the top 10 nationally (2011).

Yet the Tigers started their recent streak of winning and competing for ACC Championships in 2011. Under head coach Dabo Swinney, they won 42 games in four seasons through 2014. The next season, they appeared in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship and later captured two titles in three years.

“They are a story unlike any other,” said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals. “They are in Clemson, S.C. It’s not a hotbed of activity. They don’t have Nike money like Oregon when Chip Kelly brought them to the top. They don’t have tradition like Alabama or Ohio State to sell. They are Clemson. It’s a little town.”

Once Clemson started winning at a high level, elite recruiting followed. The Tigers signed five top 10 classes in the last six recruiting cycles. Only Alabama (26) and Georgia (23) landed more five-star recruits during that time, per Rivals.

It’s why top-ranked Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC) could still beat No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC) despite losing star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to a positive COVID-19 test last week.

Losing Lawrence just meant replacing him with another five-star quarterback in true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei. The Tigers boast depth at other key positions, too. Of the 129 recruits they signed since 2015, 22 of them held five-star distinction. The Irish added only two such recruits out of the 134 they signed during that time, per Rivals.

“We have their depth chart here, and I’ll take their fourth sam linebacker,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Let’s see, I’ll take their fifth defensive tackle. I’ll take their fourth defensive end. They’re in pretty good shape. I do not wish COVID on them at all and I do not wish them any injuries. But they’re going to put out a really good product with the other players that they have. We’re going to be prepared for the No. 1 team in the country, and the guys they roll out, they’re going to be pretty good.”

Before reaching that point, the Tigers were inferior to the Irish in most recruiting metrics on Rivals. From 2002 to 2014, Clemson signed only eight five-star and 92 four-star recruits (293 total) while Notre Dame signed 16 five-star and 129 four-star recruits (267 total). In all but two of those classes, the Irish had a better ranking when averaging the star rating of each signee.

Recruiting rankings

Notre Dame boasts a 39-6 record since 2017 but is still looking to crack the top echelon of college football. There is still work to be done before the Irish are a perennial championship contender like the Tigers.

Clemson’s unique blueprint could be difficult for Notre Dame and others to recreate.

“I don’t think anybody can look to Clemson,” Farrell said, “and say, ‘We are going to do that.’ I think they can all say, ‘We would love to do that.’ But what (Swinney) did, it’s similar to Boise State on a higher level.

“Like how does that happen? It’s inexplicable. It takes great coaching, great player development, great staff, great recruiting. Everything has to go right. You also look that they haven’t really been decimated by injuries over the years, whereas other programs have had problems like Alabama last year and this year.

“They have just been lucky, but also smart. I don’t think anybody is going to replicate that.”

The right decisions

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney hired defensive coordinator Brent Venables (middle) from the University of Oklahoma in 2012.

Upgrading Swinney from interim to full-time head coach just before the end of the 2008 season resulted in backlash from Clemson’s fan base and pundits.

Swinney recruited and developed his position well as Clemson’s recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach. But he had no coordinating or head coaching experience. Swinney also coached under Tommy Bowden, who faltered and resigned six games into the 2008 season.

Since hiring Swinney, the Tigers have a 137-31 record with five consecutive College Football Playoff appearances and two national championships. Swinney’s decision making, recruiting, player development and culture were among the ways he elevated them to that level.

“It is really short-sighted if you don’t give Dabo Swinney a ton of credit,” said Anna Hickey, a Clemson football reporter for 247Sports. “He’s not just this rah-rah guy that I think some people see when he delivers the cheesy one-liners sometimes or the fiery speeches. He definitely is smart when it comes to people, having his pulse on what his team needs, what the program needs and kind of just being in that CEO role.”

Hiring Brent Venables in 2012 turned out to be one of the best decisions Swinney made. Venables established himself as a big-name defensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. Still, he had no connections with Swinney, went to Kansas State and most of his recruiting ties were in the Midwest.

Venables has since cemented himself as one of the best assistant coaches in the country. His defense consistently ranks among the best nationally. He won the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s best assistant coach, in 2016. Venables reportedly turned down multiple head coaching job offers in recent years.

“He did a really good job at Oklahoma, but he took it to the next level with Clemson,” Farrell said. “It’s ridiculous now. He was an absolutely huge hire. To get a guy as well thought of from a power program that is also competing for national championships — it is moves like that.”

Farrell credited Swinney for having continuity on his coaching staff with Venables and others. Former co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott remained with Clemson before being hired as South Florida’s head coach after last season. He joined Bowden’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 2008. Then Swinney retained Scott and elevated him to wide receivers coach.

Current offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who won the Broyles Award in 2017, has been with the Tigers since 2011. Venables and Elliott have coached 120 games together as part of Clemson's staff.

Continuity has been felt by Clemson on the recruiting trail, too. Rarely do recruits decommit from the Tigers under Swinney. The Tigers have had just 10 decommitments in his 12 recruiting classes.

“The other aspect of it too was just player development,” Hickey said. “They do not go to the transfer portal under Swinney. They don’t even look at it. They are huge on just developing players in their program. I think that’s maybe an overlooked aspect of it. They’ve hit on guys in recruiting.”

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) looks to pass against Syracuse on Oct. 24.

Another critical decision from Swinney helped Clemson win a national championship in 2018. Four games into the season, Swinney replaced starting quarterback Kelly Bryant with a true freshman in Lawrence. Bryant led the Tigers to a 12-2 season and a College Football Playoff appearance in 2017. He later transferred to Missouri.

Lawrence never lost a game as the starter the rest of the season.

“All of these were smart, smart decisions, but hard decisions to do,” Farrell said. “I guarantee you if (Georgia head coach) Kirby Smart had to look back on it right now, if he had a time machine, he would have yanked (quarterback) Jake Fromm, put Justin Fields in and then we’d be talking about UGA being a shoe-in for the national championship this year.

“So you’ve got to have tremendous respect for all those decisions. Because one wrong decision by Dabo, and the whole thing could have crumbled. It’s like Jenga. He made every right move. So you’ve got to give him credit.”

Notable recruiting wins

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney helped sign five-star running back C.J. Spiller in the 2006 recruiting class.

One of Swinney’s first major recruiting wins came with C.J. Spiller.

The five-star running back signed with the Tigers in the 2006 recruiting class. Swinney reportedly pushed for Spiller despite the prevailing perception that he would stay in the Sunshine State. The Lake Butler (Fla.) Union County product reportedly grew up near Florida’s campus, spent his childhood as a Florida State fan and never went to a Clemson home game as a recruit.

Spiller is one of the most decorated players in Clemson’s history and was a unanimous All-American in 2009. His number, 28, is retired at Clemson. He turned 606 carries into 3,547 yards and 32 touchdowns along with catching 123 passes for 1,420 yards and 11 scores in his career.

“Clemson was really not known for getting five-star kids from Florida at that point in time,” Farrell said. “That was a game changer. More five-stars from Florida followed, because C.J. was such a big name. So at the time, it was a huge recruiting upset.”

Following Spiller’s collegiate career, the Tigers started hitting at important positions. Clemson signed four-star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant in the 2010 class. Five-star receiver Sammy Watkins joined the Tigers via the 2011 class. Four-star receiver Mike Williams came in the 2013 class. All but Bryant are still playing in the NFL.

In the 2019 NFL Draft, three Clemson defensive linemen were selected in the first round: Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. They were part of the 2015 and 2016 classes.

Clemson secured four-star quarterback Tajh Boyd in the 2009 class. Then came five-star quarterbacks Deshaun Watson (2014), Lawrence (2018) and Uiagalelei (2020). Four-star Bryant signed with the Tigers in the 2015 class.

Boyd helped bring Clemson to prominence as a three-year starter. The Tigers ditched "Clemsoning" — a catchphrase used to describe their previous habit of struggling in big games — under Watson. Bryant and Lawrence kept the run going, and Uiagalelei is expected to do the same.

“To go from Tajh Boyd to Deshaun Watson to Kelly Bryant to Trevor to D.J.,” Farrell said, “that’s astonishing. If you look at the bar graph on other football teams that may not have the same success, there’s always a dip. I mean, look at Georgia now. The quarterback situation is a nightmare, and that’s going to hurt them. There’s always a dip, but there has never been a dip at Clemson.”

Notre Dame comparison

Both head coach Brian Kelly, left, and quarterback Ian Book, right, won a lot of games at Notre Dame. But even better quarterback play may be required for the Irish to win the elusive national championship in the College Football Playoff era.

Hickey brings the perspective as someone who covered Notre Dame from 2013-15 and Clemson since the end of the 2016 season.

In assessing the recruiting operations of both programs, Hickey compared their overall approach. The Irish and the Tigers attempt to sell recruits that they are different than other top football programs. With Notre Dame, it brings a combination of football and academics. With Clemson comes a fun, family-like culture.

Both programs also recruit nationally, though they do not compete head-to-head much.

“If you don’t get Clemson or if you don’t get Notre Dame as a prospect,” Hickey said, “neither program’s coaching staff is going to spend a ton of time trying to convince you that this is where you should be. That doesn’t mean that neither staff, that they don’t recruit hard. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that if you don’t get what it takes to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame, they are not going to hold your hand and convince you otherwise.”

The Tigers recruit differently than the Irish in a lot of ways, too. Clemson does not have to turn away several potential prospects for academic reasons. With recruiting hotbeds North Carolina, Georgia and Florida within driving distance, Clemson is in a more favorable location. And the weather is warmer.

Recruits come to Clemson for official visits during football season but not from April to June. The Tiger coaching staff hopes recruits will be sold on Clemson before taking an all-inclusive paid trip, not the other way around. For the Irish, spring official visits have been critical to their process.

“I think Notre Dame maybe is able to resonate with upper northeast kind of kids who maybe sometimes tend to be the offensive linemen,” Hickey said. “Clemson hasn’t been able to dig into that really as well. And then on the flip side, Clemson has been able to recruit at a higher level on the defensive line and some of the skill spots than Notre Dame.”

Clemson built its initial success largely without top 10 recruiting classes. Notre Dame has finished with a top 10 class only twice under Kelly and once since 2012, per Rivals. Yet the Irish are in position to win at least 10 games for a fourth straight season, which has never been done in program history.

Now they are looking to take the next step like the Tigers did. Can Notre Dame look to Clemson as an inspiration? 

Having continuity, consistently elite quarterback play and key recruiting wins at positions of need are lessons the Irish could take from the Tigers. But to Farrell, comparing Notre Dame and Clemson recruiting is like apples and oranges. He also said the Irish still need to improve at quarterback, the skill positions and in overall speed.

Getting there may require a significant change in approach — much like the one Swinney orchestrated.

“They have to take the handcuffs off Brian Kelly academically,” Farrell said. “That is what needs to happen, because Lou Holtz when he built them as a national champion got the benefit of the doubt academically.

“It allowed him flexibility when it comes to academic standards. Brian Kelly doesn’t get that. That is really what it’s going to take. They can’t recruit every kid in the southeast like Clemson can. They can’t recruit every kid in the southeast like Alabama can.

“I think that is the biggest issue for Notre Dame, is there’s a constant battle between ‘We are an academic university’ and ‘We are a football university.’ That battle has been raging since Holtz left. Nobody has really gotten the benefit of the doubt.”

Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney joins with players before facing The Citadel on Sept. 19.