Clemson's early work pays dividends

Clemson's fast and furious close to its 2011 recruiting class helped push the Tigers' ranking into the top 10 nationally.

Included in the fast finish were the additions of the nation's top two linebackers -- Tony Steward of St. Augustine (Fla.) Menendez and Stephone Anthony of Wadesboro (N.C.) Anson -- defensive end Roderick Byers of Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern and offensive guard Spencer Region of Cullman, Ala.

"Today is one of those special days," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said on Wednesday. "We got better today as a football program, and we are certainly are better coaches today than yesterday because of class we signed. College football is about personnel. You look at the group we are getting here and it's easy to get excited. I can't help but smile."

Clemson had several needs this recruiting season, but one of the biggest was at linebacker. Many observers believed Florida State was the favorite to nab Steward leading up to signing day, but Steward always said Clemson was right there. In the end, he just felt more comfortable with the Tigers.

"It means a lot to be a part of this class," said Steward, a five-star prospect and the No. 9 overall player. "This is one of the top classes ever for Clemson and it feels good to be a part of it. I believe we can make a strong run because it's loaded with some great athletes. More than that, this class has good people."

Anthony's head coach, Luke Hyatt, believes Clemson was the perfect fit for his star player.

"Of course I was with Stephone during his announcement, so I didn't get a chance to really see his reaction," Hyatt said. "So when my wife and I got home, we watched it. To just see that smile on his face and the look in his eyes said it all. I know the decision for him came down to just how comfortable he felt at Clemson, especially with their environment. I know he really believes that they are building on something."

The one person perhaps more excited than Swinney about the Tigers' defensive haul is Clemson defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Kevin Steele.

"We got bigger and more athletic on defense," Steele said. "We have some big and powerful defensive linemen and those linebackers can run like the wind. We are very pleased with this group."

Offensively, the primary focus for the Tigers was at receiver. Clemson pulled in five quality pass catchers, including the elite trio of Sammy Watkins of Ft. Meyers (Fla.) South Ft. Myers, Charon Peake of Spartanburg (S.C.) Dorman and Martavis Bryant of Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy.

Peake is a five-star recruit and the nation's No. 2 receiver, while Watkins is a four-star prospect and the country's No. 4 wideout. Bryant was a member of the ESPNU 150 last season, but was forced to attend prep school and re-sign with the Tigers after he failed to qualify.

While signing day was a great day for Clemson, the Tigers may not be done. The nation's top recruit, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, visited Clemson last weekend. Clowney said the Tigers are in the hunt, along with South Carolina and Alabama.

Swinney said Wednesday's finish was the culmination of two years of hard work. It all started after Swinney's first recruiting class in 2009. In February of that year, Clemson changed its recruiting strategy.

The Tigers knew they had to change things up because the acceleration of the recruiting process. The Tigers wanted to get ahead, so they began working on the class of 2011. That's when they began to forge the relationships with many players who signed Wednesday.

"It's come full circle," Steele said. "You can see what we can do now. We proved that when you work with the acceleration of the process and get ahead of it. … It's about getting on these kids early, building a rapport and getting them on campus. That's what we did."

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.