While passing out compliments to Dabo Swinney and his staff for a signing-day job well done, more than one ESPN commentator tosses a caveat on the table by questioning the Clemson program’s ability to turn recruiting success into bottom-line results.
Wait just a minute, answered Swinney.
Swinney made the point that it’s too early to judge – that what he’s done so far has been aimed at laying a personnel groundwork for future success.
His point appears to be valid.
So far, just half of the 30 players that have arrived at Clemson on Swinney’s watch have played in a game. Of those 15, four have become starters in their first or second seasons in the program – Corico Hawkins, Quandon Christian, Bryce McNeal and DeAndre Hopkins. Two more – Malliciah Goodman and Jonathan Meeks – are regular parts of the personnel rotation at their position. The rest – Tajh Boyd, Rod McDowell, Spencer Shuey, Tyler Shatley, Brandon Thomas and Darrell Smith – have played sparingly in reserve roles.
Another 15 players from the Tigers’ 2010 signing class will be redshirt freshmen next fall, available for action for the first time along with the 29 players that Clemson signed on Wednesday.
Swinney said that Clemson 2011 signing-day bonanza was the result of a plan that began after he took over the head coaching job in January of 2009.
“Come this fall, we have laid the foundation for what we want this program to become,” Swinney said. “All the sophomores and freshmen on this football team this fall will be guys that we’ve recruited since January of ’09.
“This staff has worked really hard and has done it the right way. Before you can have a harvest, so to speak, you have plow, you’ve got to plant, and you’ve got to water. That’s what we’ve done for two years.”
Swinney said that part of his strategy has been in keeping numbers to a minimum, to allow for a large third-year class.
“After I got the job, I put a staff together, put everything in order, and had about three weeks, really, to get it done,” he said. “We signed 12 guys, but it was the right guys – really 11 now because of J.K. Jay’s injury. All 11 of those guys are good players for us, and are going be significant contributors throughout their careers. We feel like we hit on all those guys.
“This past year, we were able to redshirt all but four, and that group is just ready to go. We think we hit on all those linemen last year, and the four who played are going to be sophomores and will be better next year because of the experience that they had.
“Last year, we probably could have signed a few more, but we just didn’t want to take a guy. We’ve been very patient, because we knew were going to have an opportunity to put a great class together.”
Swinney said that the cycle goes on, year-after-year, and that early relationship-building is a big part of what the coaching staff does well.
“You really should be working about a year ahead,” said Swinney. “I was on the phone (Wednesday) with a bunch of 2012s. We had a big junior day this past weekend. That’s just the way it is now. It’s not like it used to be where you can just start recruiting a guy. You have to build these relationships.
“Charone Peake is a guy who I’ve known since he was in the ninth grade. We’ve been bonding and forming a relationship, and that’s a hard thing (for opponents) to overcome.
“These (juniors) that I’m talking to today are going to be seniors next year, and we’ve been talking to those guys – they’ve been on campus and they’ve been coming to games. There are 2013s (sophomores) who we’ve already had on campus.
“It’s just a never-ending process. But if you’re going to be the best at something, you have to have the best players, and you have to go out-work people. I think a lot of our coaches have done that.”
In answering those who question Clemson’s ability to translate recruiting success to on-field success, Swinney pointed to Clemson’s history.
“People can say what they want, but I don’t think we’ve consistently recruited at this level,” Swinney said. “We might have had some moments. But when Clemson was at its best, they were recruiting great every year. When you go back and look at ’87 and ’88 and ’89 and ’86, and the type of recruiting they were doing then, that’s when they were at their best.
“You might have had a class here or a guy here or there. But as far as meeting your needs and consistently getting great players, I don’t think we’ve consistently done that. Hopefully that’s something we can change as we move forward, and get the results that we want on the field.”