In the end, there was never a lot of doubt where Mitch Hyatt would play his college football.
The seeds were sown long ago. It was just a matter of Clemson harvesting them.
When Hyatt announced his commitment to the Tigers on the evening of February 5, a full year before he could officially sign a national letter of intent, it was the culmination of a process that began 35 years ago when Dan Benish walked onto Clemson’s campus as a defensive tackle signee.
Benish, Hyatt’s uncle, loved his time at Clemson, helping the Tigers win their only national championship in 1981.
Now fans hope Hyatt can live up to the high standards that his uncle set. The expectations are certainly high already. Hyatt—a Suwanee, Georgia, native—is rated as the nation’s No. 4 overall prospect and No. 2 offensive tackle, per 247Sports.com.
By committing to Clemson, Hyatt put extra pressure on himself. But it’s the only place he really wanted to be.
“He enjoyed himself, but he doesn’t enjoy that whole recruiting side of life,” said Hyatt’s North Gwinnett High School coach, Bob Sphire. “His whole thing with me was, ‘I know what I want to do, and I want to focus on helping North Gwinnett be as good as we can be this fall.’ By going to Clemson, getting that done, he can focus on us and his teammates.”
Hyatt had a laundry list of offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Miami, South Carolina, Southern California, Ohio State, UCLA and more.
But he never found anything quite as special to him as Clemson.
He grew up going to games with Benish, who played at Clemson from 1979-83 and spent four seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins.
Benish's sister raised Hyatt as a single mom, and Benish served as a role model, coaching Hyatt in Atlanta-area youth football leagues and taking him to one or two games per year as their schedules permitted (Hyatt's teams played on Saturdays, too).
"It wasn't a matter of pushing him in a direction, telling him to do something," Benish said. "But I guess over the years a brainwashing took place and he fell in love with the situation. That's why he committed there."
“Going into it, Clemson had a clear head start,” Sphire said. “His association with Clemson, going to games growing up, being around the program. It was Mitch’s choice where he wanted to go. It wasn’t about where his uncle wanted him to go at all. He had a very great feel for Clemson already, a positive outlook on them.”
Sphire praised Clemson’s coaching staff for their recruitment of Hyatt (offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell was the recruiter of record).
“They went into the game with the lead,” he said, “and they didn’t screw it up. That’s for sure.”
Over an 18-month period, Hyatt visited numerous campuses, in Sphire’s words, “doing his due diligence.” Benish said he and Hyatt's mother accompanied him on various trips, mostly in the South, although Ohio State was also a destination.
“He was going places and seeing things, but he kept comparing it to Clemson,” Sphire said. “It never lost its luster for him. The shine never came off it.”
"He'd tell me everywhere we'd go, he'd compare it to Clemson," he said. "And nothing stacked up."
About a week before national signing day, Sphire said he could see Hyatt’s recruiting process drawing to a close.
“The whole community, I loved it,” Hyatt told 247Sports. “I went there for a visit for junior day and talked with coach (Dabo) Swinney face to face. He told me how the future would look if I went there, and I liked the plan. It seemed like it was for me.”
According to Sphire, Hyatt is a “quiet, unassuming kid” who didn’t truly enjoy the recruiting process and “is not a recruiting thrill-seeker at all. ... He’s not geared for getting on a plane and going to see Oregon’s uniforms.”
"Mitch is a down-to-earth guy," he said. "I think he likes the smallness (of Clemson), where at the same time you get the big-time atmosphere. He didn't like some of the schools built around the inner city. I don't want to say he's a country boy, but he does drive a pickup truck."
So Hyatt approached Sphire with a plan. North Gwinnett typically honors its seniors who have signed scholarships on the evening of national signing day, a big event for the community.
How would everyone feel if he announced his choice that night? “I thought it was a great time to do it then,” Sphire said. “He didn’t want to steal thunder from the seniors, but we’re a tight-knit team and they were tickled to have Mitch as a part of that. We thought it was the right thing to do with the community, too. Everyone loves Mitch and looks up to him, thinks the world of him.”
So Hyatt announced for Clemson, giving the Tigers’ 2015 class a huge boost just as the calendar turned to officially start the new cycle.
“I wanted to go under the radar,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Everyone was focused on the signings, so I wanted to slip in there, tell them, keep it under the radar.”
Committing early also allowed Hyatt to recruit for Clemson, trying to convince other elite players to jump on board with the Tigers. Since then, they have also received a commitment from 4-star offensive tackle Jake Fruhmorgen.
Hyatt currently stands 6’5”, 271 pounds, also plays basketball and even dabbles as a defensive lineman.
“I think he’s the total package,” Sphire said. “He’s pretty good in all phases of the game and extremely athletic for the size he has. He’s effective as a run-blocker, a pass-blocker, can really play out in space and go out on screens. Some linemen are really good maulers in the run game or pass sets, but he does everything well. He finishes every play, every drill, he’s extremely coachable and has football intelligence.”
And the best is yet to come, Sphire said.
“Once he gets to college, they’ll put about 20 pounds of quality weight on him, beef him up, change him physically,” he said. “With his footwork, his demeanor, he understands the game of football really well. In terms of a lot of the things we do (with a spread offense) he’ll transition to the college game really well.”
He’ll do so while playing on the same field where his uncle played 30-plus years ago, hoping to lead Clemson to similar glory. Benish looks forward to the first time he'll watch his nephew run down Clemson's famous hill and says Hyatt will create his own legacy.
"Mitch has always been his own guy," he said. "He's done a very good job with this decision and the way he carries himself. Going into this, I told him, you're not going in as my nephew. You're going into this blazing your own path. I signed the last scholarship Clemson had, which was more of a timing thing, but he'll be going in as a top dog. He can blaze his own path, be a leader, build his own legacy.
"We'll be linked. He'll have a chance to be an All-American, and I never did that. I made All-ACC, but never All-American. And he'll have a chance to get a national championship."
It’s a tough assignment, but one that Mitch Hyatt has fully embraced.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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