CLEMSON, S.C. — At 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, Dabo Swinney rolled his Toyota Tundra 1794 Edition pickup onto a section of sidewalk outside the Nieri Family Student-Athlete Enrichment Center on the west side of Memorial Stadium. Swinney popped out in a flaming orange suede blazer and with a spring in his step, looking loud and proud as he prepared to announce the best recruiting class he’s ever signed.
“It’s pretty cool when you see young men from all over the country choose Clemson,” Swinney said 40 minutes later at a podium. “There are 17-18 year-olds who have grown up in a decade of Clemson football. … They know everything about Clemson.”
This is the reality in the sport: for about as long as today’s Class of 2020 signees have been thinking about themselves as potential college football players, Clemson has been on center stage. But Wednesday marked a new milestone.
In 2015, Clemson arrived as a national heavyweight on the field and hasn’t left. The Tigers pushed Alabama to the brink in the College Football Playoff championship game before submitting, and they've been a playoff fixture ever since.
On Wednesday the Tigers arrived as the pre-eminent recruiting program in America as well. On the first day of the nearly national letter-of-intent signing period, Clemson locked up Sports Illustrated’s No. 1 recruiting class for 2020.
It’s the first time Clemson has landed the top class in the nation. And it is a truly national class, with prospects from coast to coast and even north of the border.
Swinney’s program signed the No. 1 player on both sides of the ball, according to Rivals.com. They landed the overall No. 1 prospect, defensive tackle Brian Bresee of Maryland. And they landed the No. 2 overall player, quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei of California. That’s never happened in Rivals’ 18 years of ranking prospects.
Swinney compared Bresee’s athleticism to that of former star defensive end Christian Wilkins, who was the No. 13 pick in last year’s NFL draft. But, Swinney said, Bresse “is stronger, more heavy-handed and violent” out of high school than Wilkins was.
As for Uiagalelei, Swinney admitted that he has a “hooked on phonics” pronunciation of his latest start quarterback’s name typed into his phone. The coach downgraded the St. John Bosco product’s height from his listed 6-foot-5 to 6-4, but at 240 pounds he is both thick and agile by QB standards.
“He’s like the other great (quarterbacks) we’ve had, just bigger,” Swinney said. “He’s special with his arm and his legs.”
Uiagalelei will be one of 16 early enrollees from this class, Swinney said. Which means he can get an early start on his season of studying under Trevor Lawrence.
“I bet we have a packed house for the spring game,” Swinney said. That’s a guarantee.
But Bresee and Uiagalelei are only the headliners. There are many other studs at many other positions in this 23-man Clemson class.
The Tigers have four players on the SI All-American first team, and Uiagalelei isn’t even one of them. They have a whopping six Rivals five-star recruits in this class. Nobody else came into Wednesday with commitments from more than three.
Even in an era of clustering the top prospects among just a few programs—all but ensuring that access to the playoff will remain in the hands of a tiny slice of FBS teams—this is an extreme haul.
Swinney’s classes in recent years have been good, of course. Last year the Tigers were No. 9 in the Rivals rankings, the previous year No. 8, then No. 22 in 2017, No. 6 in 2016 and No. 4 in 2015. Now, however, Clemson is outperforming Alabama and the rest of the nation in the talent procurement game as well as on the field.
Beyond sheer quality of recruit, the impressive thing is the national reach Clemson now enjoys. This class has just one player from South Carolina, while grabbing a quarterback from California and players from Canada, Texas, Maryland and Washington, D.C.—not to mention prospects from all over the SEC footprint. Last year there were signees from California, Connecticut, Missouri, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In the three previous seasons the Tigers went into Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska.
Swinney was especially excited about his first international player, wide receiver Ajou Ajou of Alberta, Canada. In classic Coach Hayseed fashion, Swinney said he introduced himself as “Dabo Dabo” the first time he met the player.
Of course, Swinney’s portrayal of himself as a bit of bumpkin conceals both his intellect and organizational savvy. Just as love of the phrase “Little Ol’ Clemson” belies the actual stature of his program.
Over the course of this decade of winning—and especially the last five years—Clemson has become the place with everything.
All the facilities.
All the support staff.
All the trophies.
Now all the players.
The Clemson run at the forefront of football isn't stopping anytime in the foreseeable future.