The first Clemson recruiting class of the post-Deshaun Watson era, not surprisingly, features two quarterbacks. One, Chase Brice, is a four-star prospect from Loganville, Ga., a town about 100 miles from campus and thus situated in the program’s prime talent-acquisition wheelhouse. Then there is the other signal-caller in the haul, a big-armed kid from a suburb of Indianapolis who has elected to play college football in the northwest corner of South Carolina, a mildly unconventional choice that hinted at the willingness of the program to pursue long-distance relationships.
Hunter Johnson, a four-star recruit and the fifth-best quarterback in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com, intended to play for Tennessee as late as his junior year at Brownsburg (Ind.) High. Yet he couldn’t bury the curiosity about what Clemson might offer thanks to some social-media persistence from coaches. So he talked his way into an unofficial visit in late 2015. Not long after Johnson arrived, his parents, Reed and Shanna, exchanged a glance that his father now describes as: Uh-oh, this could be trouble. “He kind of looked at us and said, ‘This just feels like me,’” Reed Johnson recalls, and by the middle of December his son changed his mind and pledged allegiance to a school a scant 568 miles from home.
From the start, Dabo Swinney aimed to recruit from the “inside-out,” as the Tigers head coach put it to his staff, emphasizing South Carolina and states within a 300-mile radius like Georgia, North Carolina and parts of Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. It turns out the search for a long-term solution to succeed Watson, the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist—and with it the signing of a coveted prospect from the heart of the Midwest—underscored both the growing reach of the reigning national champions and the challenge of remaining picky despite some new doors opening a long way from Upstate.
“Outside of those [nearby] states, coach Swinney wants to be sure the guys we’re going after are what we would consider franchise players, really elite players that are a great fit for the culture,” says Jeff Scott, the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator and the program’s recruiting coordinator from 2008–14. “Whenever we do look at those guys that are out of that immediate footprint, coach Swinney wants to make sure we’re not going 10 hours away to get a player that we can get in our backyard.”
It’s a fertile yard, and Clemson certainly ought to keep tending to it. But there may be more beyond the fence to harvest.
Though Hunter Johnson is on campus now as an early enrollee (and unavailable for interviews as a result), the national title was more than a year away when he flipped his commitment. So the 6’4”, 200-pounder is not a cause-and-effect example in that regard. And a run of six straight seasons with double-digit wins has not yet resulted in Clemson furnishing its roster with talent from all corners of the country: The last four classes of prospects, including 2017, feature 10 total players from states like Ohio, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey and Connecticut, regions beyond the standard recruiting territory. Of those, five earned four-star ratings.
High School Class
While it’s difficult to quantify, Scott says the range is surely expanding; in past years, Clemson reached out to elite prospects to gauge their interest. “Now we’re getting contacted by them,” Scott says. It’s believable because it’s a logical extension of the current dynamic. The Tigers started winning big, and then they landed a player like Christian Wilkins, the star defensive lineman who is a Connecticut native and a former four-star prospect from the class of 2015. Two years later, a four-star quarterback from Indiana named Hunter Johnson hopped on. It figures that as long as the victories continue, broader interest won’t wane.
“I’m not sure that five or six years ago, when coach Swinney just took over, our brand would’ve been strong enough for a guy like Christian Wilkins to fly over all those schools between Clemson and Connecticut,” Scott says. “Eight to 10 years ago, guys like Hunter Johnson probably didn’t know what state Clemson was located in.”
That’s no longer an issue. But taking care to devote resources to the right high-end prospects will be Clemson’s new good problem to have.
Because he arrives as one of the most impactful players in program history departs, and because he’s in position to succeed Watson at some point, Johnson may be the most visible emblem of this paradigm. The comprehensive ability is evidently there. Johnson threw for 6,657 yards and 69 touchdowns in his prep career, ran a 50-second flat 400-meter in high school and, according to his father, recorded a 36- or 37-inch vertical leap during testing at Clemson after his arrival on campus. “He throws the football better than anybody I’ve seen since Jeff George,” says John Hunt, Johnson’s coach for his senior year at Brownsburg High. “If you see him throw the ball, if you’re a quarterback guy, it’s the alpha and omega. He’s perfect. But his athleticism is really, really surprising when you see him run and jump and stuff.”
Johnson likewise should be an ideal fit for the culture Swinney harps on. Hunt tells the story often: The Brownsburg track team, including Johnson, qualified for the state championship on a Thursday. Johnson subsequently flew out to compete at the Elite 11 camp on Friday. Late Friday, Johnson flew back for the 4x400 track final set for Saturday. Then he got back on a plane again to return to Elite 11. And when Brownsburg football’s Monday summer workout began at 6:15 a.m., Johnson was one of the first players to arrive. “Ninety-nine percent of kids I’ve ever coached would’ve never showed up at that workout,” Hunt says.
And still: When Johnson, a committed prospect, broached the idea of a visit to Swinney back in 2015…the Tigers coach more or less tried to talk him out of it. “He didn’t want [Johnson] to waste his time to come down,” Scott says. “He really challenged him on it.” The issue was being absolutely certain that the interest from Johnson was sincere because Clemson believes it can’t afford to go through the motions with recruits from a great distance away, no matter how touted they may be.
In these cases, the Tigers typically wait for the prospect to visit first, to be absolutely sure of the fit before they venture outside their comfort zone. Clemson liked Johnson a lot. It did not like Johnson enough to squander limited resources on him. “You have to be very purposeful in where you’re going because you don’t have a lot of time,” Scott says. “When you’re flying a long way to see a guy that more than likely is not going to come to Clemson, you could’ve hit eight or 10 schools and seen several guys more locally. We’re always making sure we’re going out there for right reasons.”
Everything dovetailed nicely in this case. Clemson loses Watson but adds a high-end talent who will not mind that there are experienced quarterbacks on the roster, nor that the program also has an verbal commitment from Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback currently considered the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2018. “Competition just does not bother him,” Reed Johnson says. “He knows what he is, he knows what he can do. I don’t mean that in a bad way—I just don’t think he ever looks at competition. He’s like, I’m going to go out and make plays and do what I can do.”
And Reed Johnson insists his son was seeking more than playing time anyway. Notre Dame recruited Hunter Johnson, and the depth chart was far less crowded—“He came very close to committing there,” Reed Johnson says—but Hunter Johnson was concerned that Mike Sanford, the Fighting Irish offensive coordinator, would depart for a head coaching job before he arrived. (As it happened, Sanford took the Western Kentucky gig in December.) The relationship mattered more than the opportunity. “He wasn’t necessarily looking for the No. 1 team in the nation, the national championship team,” Reed Johnson says. “He was looking for, what school fits me the best, what people am I around, what’s the message? If it’d been Purdue or Indiana that he felt was the fit, he’d be at Purdue or Indiana.”
It may become less and less onerous for Clemson to get involved with top-shelf recruits from all parts of the country, even as the nearby states continue to churn out highly sought players. The question: how well the program sticks to its exacting evaluation of prospects with a lot of talent but a lot of miles between them and Memorial Stadium.
Clemson is positioned to extend its recruiting reach, and Wilkins has proven the Tigers can get high-level production from people a long way from home. The program will be tempted to bring more of those players on board, as Swinney & Co. did with Hunter Johnson.
Now we will see if that temptation is tempered by a vetting process aimed at ensuring neither side has any regrets. “It’s now created a culture where we’re going to do a great job in our footprint, but if we can supplement our players with a couple elite, franchise guys that can have a big impact and they fit Clemson and everything we’re looking for, then let’s go get them,” Scott says. “That’s been our formula we’ve had the last four years now. The only difference is there’s more guys outside of footprint that have an interest. But we still have do our due diligence.”