When Mackensie Alexander placed a Clemson hat on his head last Wednesday, it was an act of trust - perhaps the most tangible indication yet that what Dabo Swinney and Jeff Scott are selling on the recruiting trail is more than the usual song-and-dance.
Coaches don't just walk into Immokalee, Florida and take the pick of the crop.
Immokalee, on the edge of the Everglades, is a hard-working agricultural town comprised predominantly of first and second-generation immigrants. Residents work long hours in the fields for low wages, planting, tending and harvesting one of America's largest vegetable production operations.
Football, for a few, is a way out.
According to an ESPN report citing U.S. Census Bureau records, 43.9 percent of Immokalee's population lives below the poverty level. Eighty percent of residents report a language other than English is spoken at home, and among adults, 32.3 percent graduated high school. The statewide number is 85.5 percent. Less than four percent of the population reports having a college degree.
Two years ago, nobody knew much at all about Mackensie Alexander.
Now renowned as one of the top high school players in the nation - described often as a ready-to-play lockdown corner - Alexander played well enough as junior, with three interceptions and six PBUs, to earn all-state honors and an invitation to the U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio.
There, performing with and against some of the best junior prospects in the country, Alexander excelled.
He got his first handful of college offers, and quickly committed to the University of Tennessee. He soon decommitted, however, after position coach Terry Joseph left Knoxville for Nebraska.
From that point on, Alexander grabbed control of the recruiting process and did it his way, limiting his contact with coaches, shunning the highly-public media circus surrounding recruiting, and gaining a reputation as being reclusive and arrogant.
Those who knew him knew better.
Alexander had a plan, and he took his time, carefully examining his options for executing his plan. His bottom line goal: he wants to give back to his parents.
"They're paying my bills right now so I can pay their bills later," Alexander told ESPN. "I want to take care of my parents one day. That's why I'm so driven."
One of the coaches who managed to develop a relationship with Alexander and his family was Clemson's Tony Elliott. Once the Tigers got their foot in the door, Elliott believed Clemson's chances were as good as anyone's. He sensed there would be a connection between Alexander and Dabo Swinney, and he wasn't wrong.
Swinney, perhaps because of his own background, understood Alexander's drive and desire to be the best.
After Alexander left Clemson in November after making his second of four official visits, he suggested that Clemson was his favorite. Clemson's coaches, meanwhile, felt good about Alexander, and that never changed.
Physically, Alexander has all the tools to be a successful college cornerback. But that's not what impressed Swinney most.
"He's got the size and physicality you want at that position," said Swinney. "He can fly and he has great ball skills. He plays the ball well and makes a lot of plays on the ball. He's a tackler, and he's a physical presence when he steps on the field.
"But what you see when you watch him play is a guy that's driven. He has a competitiveness to him that's special. When you put those intangibles together with the talent that he has, it makes him one of those rare guys.
"He's very smart - he's a guy who from day-one separated himself when we talked to him on the phone," Swinney added. "He was like 'I'm not interested in anything else but being the best.' I'd call and he was always working out or was just finishing a workout. He's driven.
"A lot that is how he's been raised. He's a guy who's willing to pay the price to be great, not good...He's got good size - he's well-developed for a senior in high school. And he's got the speed to walk up and play press-man and win a lot of battles."
Alexander ended up visiting 10 schools, determined to find the right fit. Last summer, he made unofficial visits to Notre Dame, Georgia, Miami, Alabama, Florida State and Kentucky. He made official visits to Texas A&M and Clemson in November, and then finished with officials to Mississippi State and Auburn in January. He passed up a potential fifth visit the weekend from signing day, his decision apparently already made.
The day before signing day, an ESPN article described Alexander as "an enigma, the anti-recruit':
"in an age in which top prospects' every move and tweet are documented and dissected, Alexander shuns attention," ESPN wrote. "He avoids interviews. He's been purposefully deceptive about his college plans. He has confused and frustrated fans, media and college coaches alike. In the absence of information, observers have drawn conclusions about Alexander -- that he's arrogant, even unappreciative.
"But peel back the layers and take the time to look. Alexander is introspective and indebted to the people inside his small circle. And his every move is skillfully calculated."
"I think Mackensie had a good relationship with everybody," said Swinney. "He and I hit it off, but Tony Elliott did a great job heading up his recruitment, and Brent (Venables) and Mike (Reed) when he got on board.
"Tony is the one who got us in the game and piqued his interest. I think he liked Clemson, but his initial relation was big, as was his comfort level with our overall program and philosophies here. I think they meshed pretty well with what he's looking for."
As the drama unfolded on signing day, Tiger recruiting coordinator had strong positive feelings about Alexander.
"We thought we knew," said Scott. "But you really never know. When they get up to the table in front of the TV cameras, sitting there with all their friends and family, they can change their kind in a hurry. We've had our hearts broken in the same kind of situations.
"We knew that defensive back was the No. 1 need in this class, and Mackensie was a guy we picked out from day-one. We feel like he's a franchise corner, similar to where we were two years ago with the wide receiver position, knowing that going into the 2011 class we needed playmaking receivers who could have an impact early.
"We feel like Mackensie can fill that need for us at his position."