One of the most impressive recruiting efforts in the country this year came from Clemson, as coach Dabo Swinney -- coming off a losing season and an offseason in which he fired his offensive coordinator and hired a new defensive line coach -- lured in what it is expected to finish as a top 10 class.
“We got better as a program today,” Swinney said in a telephone interview. “This is a group that not only stayed together but got stronger. You didn’t have the season you wanted and had to make changes on your staff and all that. For these guys to stay together, I just think that’s a great sign that we have the right things in place in Clemson. It’s a sign of the character of these guys, and they chose Clemson for the right reasons.
“I’ve been the head coach two seasons,” he said. “I made one championship run at it and this year it didn’t go the way we wanted to. It’s my job to fix it and that’s what I’ve tried to do in this recruiting class and we certainly addressed a lot of needs.”
The question is whether or not this year’s class will produce the championship results Clemson’s fan base so desperately craves. It’s not like Clemson hasn’t recruited elite talent before, but the program hasn’t won an ACC title since 1991. Swinney pointed out that he and his staff should be judged on their recruits, and this fall, the freshmen and sophomores who hit the field will be the players they evaluated.
Despite recruiting classes that have ranked among ESPN.com’s top 25 for each of the past five years, Swinney said Clemson’s talent level needed a boost.
“I don’t think Clemson has always gotten good talent to be honest with you,” he said. “I think we’ve had some players here and there, and I think we’ve had a class here and there, but the consistency I don’t think has quite been there. If you go back to when Clemson was at its best -- in the 80s -- if you look at what they did in recruiting in ’86, ’87, ’88 and ’89, you’ve got to consistently put it together. I think we have signed two really good classes together here. … That’s who this staff has to be held accountable for in the long term. We’ll see, but I really believe we’re moving in the right direction and there’s some great days ahead for Clemson.”
There’s no question, Swinney said, that it was tougher to recruit coming off a 6-7 season that finished with back-to-back losses to rival South Carolina and South Florida. Still, the Tigers managed to bring in seven ESPNU 150 players.
“It’s all about relationships,” Swinney said. “Most of these guys we had committed, and the ones who weren’t committed, we’d been working for two years. We’ve been doing it the right way, developing relationships with the players, their coaches and families and everybody involved. We’ve always said if we can get them to Clemson we have a shot because this is truly a special place.”
Swinney said the staff was watching ESPNU together and there was an “eruption” in the office when linebackers Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony announced they would attend Clemson. He called them “C.J. Spiller-type players at their position.”
“You can get better in a hurry when you’ve got that type of talent,” he said.
They’re not the only ones who have a chance to see the field immediately. Swinney said running back Mike Bellamy “will definitely play.” One of the quarterbacks will have to at least be a backup behind rookie Tajh Boyd, who had been the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. The defensive line also needs some depth.
“This will be a year where you’ll see a lot of freshmen in the two-deep at Clemson,” he said.
Swinney said he felt good about his chances of signing Anthony and Steward. The biggest surprise was defensive end Roderick Byers, who flipped from Oregon on Wednesday.
“Our future is bright,” Swinney said. “I’m excited about getting going. It’s going to be a fun spring, but tonight I’m going to go pass out, if I can sleep for two days straight. It’s been an all-in effort here the last couple of months in trying to right the ship.”