Dabo Swinney has played a major role in Clemson's recent recruiting success.
CLEMSON, S.C. – In less than two weeks, college football programs across the nation will trumpet their 2014 recruiting classes.
Every head coach will say receiving signed national letters of intent is like opening presents on Christmas morning, and they’ll all say that the class was the best they’ve ever signed and that it met all of their needs.
Truth is, a class is impossible to judge properly on national signing day. It takes several years of development and reflection to figure out which players turn into program stalwarts and future NFL stars and which 5-star talents flame out before making a significant impact.
Clemson is no different. Over the last 17 years, the Tigers have signed their share of talented prospects who never made an impact as well as less-heralded players who turned into key performers.
Here is a look at the Tigers’ top five recruiting classes of the BCS era, with room for reflection and comparison built in. They’re ranked in descending order, from No. 5 to No.1.
Andre Branch was a key member of Clemson's Class of 2007.
This class was ranked No. 16 nationally by Rivals.com. While several highly touted members of the 23-member group like quarterback Willy Korn, linebacker Scotty Cooper and defensive end Kourtnei Brown never lived up to their hype, others picked up the slack.
Defensive end Andre Branch was only considered a 2-star prospect by Rivals but developed into a standout pass-rusher who was a second-round pick of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh was also a 2-star prospect who chose Clemson over Appalachian State. However, he developed into a fourth-round pick of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and has started six games over the last two seasons.
Cornerback Marcus Gilchrist (a San Diego Chargers second-round draft pick) and defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins (a two-time All-ACC selection and a second-round pick of the Washington Redskins) were also key members of the class.
Many members of the class were key contributors in Clemson’s 2009 Atlantic Division title run, and several, like Sensabaugh, were part of the 2011 ACC championship team.
It was a productive group, without question.
DeAndre Hopkins was one of the best receivers in Clemson history.
Coming off 2009’s ACC Atlantic Division title, this group didn’t have immediate success but built momentum once it gained experience. The 24-member class was ranked No. 19 nationally by Rivals.com and had an unquestioned headliner in wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
When Hopkins left Clemson after three seasons following the 2012 season, he was the program’s career receiving yardage and receiving touchdown leader (marks surpassed in 2013 by Sammy Watkins). He was a first-round pick of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
He played a key role in Clemson’s 2011 ACC championship and, of course, was part of one of the biggest plays in recent Clemson history: a 4th-and-16 conversion that kept the game-winning drive alive against LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Beyond Hopkins, defensive end Vic Beasley has developed into one of the nation’s top pass-rushers, turning down a likely second-round NFL draft selection for his senior season. Cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson all served as starters in 2013, with Breeland giving up his final season of eligibility for the NFL draft. And guards David Beasley and Kalon Davis shared time at left guard this fall, with both likely to start on the Tigers’ offensive line in 2014.
This class had star power, depth and success: Everyone in the class was part of multiple 10-win seasons during their Clemson careers.
Da'Quan Bowers was one of the top defensive ends in Clemson history.
Signed by Tommy Bowden’s staff, this class had major star power and played a huge role in Clemson’s surge to national prominence under coach Dabo Swinney.
Rated No. 12 nationally by Rivals.com, this group lived up to its lofty ranking. It featured defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who some outlets considered the nation’s top overall recruit. Bowers spent three seasons at Clemson. He was the highlight of 2010’s 6-7 campaign, winning the Bronko Nagurski Award (given to the nation’s top defensive player) and named a unanimous All-American. He declared for the NFL draft following that season and has spent the last three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In addition, tight end Dwayne Allen spent three years at Clemson, winning the John Mackey Award (given to the nation’s top tight end) following his redshirt junior season and declaring for the NFL draft, where he was a third-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts.
Tailbacks Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper were both NFL draft picks of the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans, respectively; Ellington established himself as one of the NFL’s top rookie backs in 2013.
Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson started late-season games on the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive line, and wide receiver Jaron Brown made the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent. Offensive guard Antoine McClain also spent time in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.
And quarterback Kyle Parker led the Tigers to the 2009 ACC Atlantic Division title before pursuing a pro baseball career as a first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies.
This class had its ups and downs, but those who stayed all four years were part of an Atlantic Division title and the program’s first ACC championship since 1991. It lived up to its hype.
C.J. Spiller is one of the top tailbacks in Clemson history.
This class didn’t have as much on-field success, but it did lay the foundation for Clemson’s emergence under Dabo Swinney.
Rivals.com rated this class No. 16 nationally, with the biggest impact coming on national signing day. Tailback C.J. Spiller chose Clemson over Florida, a coup for Swinney, his main recruiter. Spiller was the ACC’s Player of the Year in 2009 and an All-American, a huge part of the Tigers’ ACC Atlantic Division championship.
With Spiller, wide receiver Jacoby Ford formed the greatest all-purpose duo in NCAA history: In 2009, they broke the NCAA record for all-purpose yardage for a pair of players previously held by San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk and Darnay Scott.
Spiller was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills and Ford has spent four seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
Cornerback Byron Maxwell has emerged as a key part of the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary and is expected to start in this week’s Super Bowl. Left tackle Chris Hairston has been a solid piece of the Buffalo Bills offensive line, while tight end Michael Palmer, cornerback Crezdon Butler and linebacker/end Ricky Sapp have also spent time with multiple NFL teams.
Sammy Watkins emerged as the top receiver in Clemson program history.
Following 2010’s 6-7 season, Clemson’s first losing record since 1998, the Tigers needed a pick-me-up. And they got it with this class, rated No. 8 nationally by Rivals.com.
Headlined by wide receiver Sammy Watkins, this group made an immediate impact, contributing to the program’s first ACC title since 1991 as freshmen. Watkins declared for the NFL draft (where he is a likely top-10 pick) after the 2013 season, leaving as the program leader in receiving yardage, receptions and touchdowns after just three seasons.
Fellow wideout Martavis Bryant emerged as a junior and followed Watkins to the draft as well.
Middle linebacker Stephone Anthony overcame a benching as a sophomore to lead Clemson in tackles this fall and will return for his senior season as one of the ACC’s top linebackers.
Defensive end Corey Crawford has been a very solid contributor and is set up for a huge senior season. Wide receiver Adam Humphries was unheralded but has become a great possession receiver. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is one of the nation’s most underrated defensive linemen. Fellow DT DeShawn Williams has been an on-and-off starter throughout his career.
Tackle Shaq Anthony, center Ryan Norton, tight end Stanton Seckinger and safety Robert Smith will all be starters in 2014, and wide receiver Charone Peake figures to join them, assuming his rehab from a torn ACL goes well.
Together, this group has become Clemson’s first class to win 10 games in three consecutive seasons since 1987-90 and the first in CU history to win 11 games in back-to-back seasons.
It has lived up to the hype and then some as a group that helped launch the Tigers back into the national spotlight and build a foundation for future success.