Before I begin on this 2500 word take on Clemson offensive line recruiting—just want to give credit to Mitch Hyatt. Along with Christian Wilkins, it was Mitch who helped elevate Clemson’s play along the line to the championship level. He doesn’t get enough credit, especially coming to Clemson from Georgia.
What Happened to Clemson’s Offensive Line Recruiting?
I have held my tongue and waited to release anything until at least some of the results from the 2019 class came to fruition.
5* OL Clay Webb has chosen UGA over Alabama. And it was Clemson in a distant third place in the end. Clemson didn’t even have an in-home visit with Webb, Dabo never went in-home and all the eggs and emphasis on the Webb basket were for nothing. He declared for UGA today.
With Webb there was serious optimism after his official visit to campus that he would be coming to Clemson. There were even rumblings of a silent commit that came out of offices, but this seems to be a constant with recent offensive line recruiting (other than the unique case of Jackson Carman). Clemson seems to be continually overstating/misreading where it stands with top Oline talent in the past two classes.
A big part of this is OL Coach Sam Pittman. His combination of relentless pursuit on the Oline trail juvenile humor/connection/relatability(which apparently isn’t a word) with the youth/idk YESSSIIIRRRRR nonsense has landed top recruit after top recruit.
And those recruits are playing very well. Cade Mays and Trey Hill performed extremely well as true freshman. UGA keeps adding huge Oline classes full of the top talent in the country and it doesn’t bother other top recruits or keep them from coming.
So it isn’t that bad that we missed on Webb, it is missing on Clay Webb without a great backup plan and focusing so much on the single recruit.
LESSON #1: Carrying a big board doesn’t bother top Oline talent
This is the first thing that needs to change and somewhere Clemson coaches don’t know what recruiting philosophy they are implemented. A couple of years ago too many offers came out too quickly and so the feeling was Clemson needed to scale back and offer less Olineman. Clemson has no flipped flopped back and forth on this point. For 2019, we are back to offering early.
I understand the logic. Clemson is very attractive and handing out an offer can lead to an immediate commitment. Coach Swinney isn’t going to let coaches just run players off, holding them accountable for their offers. Fine. The reason we are so gun shy can be traced to the offers to guys like Giella, DeHond, and Vinson when some felt that more talented prospects could have been grabbed at the end of those recruiting classes.
So to be clear, I’m not advocating for offering players early. I’m advocating for keeping a bigger pool of potential Olineman and tracking a bigger pool all the way through both signing periods. That means holding coaches accountable for not being more relentless on the coaching trail, carrying a bigger board, staying in constant contact with that bigger pool, getting more on-campus visits, and following through to the very end of these recruitments. That is on position coaches but also the recruiting coordinator and even area recruiters.
This year we were so selective early (that some from the outside might call borderline lazy) that we got outworked for a prospect like Harry Miller, for example. Miller and his family were sold by Urban Meyer (of all people) on mission trips and personal development beyond football. A Buford, GA product in basically our backyard goes straight to OSU and we can’t even get our foot in the door after dropping the ball.
Lastly, depth charts don’t matter as much in oline recruiting as it does at other positions. With five open positions and the chance to muddy the waters by opposing recruiters—it just doesn’t translate into a selling point. Clemson plays more players with more snaps along the Oline than anyone in the country. It doesn’t resonate.
Lesson #2: Recruit Olineman more nationally
This is related to the second point, but Clemson needs to do a better job of expanding the offer board by recruiting more aggressively as a national brand with Olineman. If we can’t compete in the state of Georgia for top lineman with regularity (and I am not saying we shouldn’t absolutely fight with everything we have in the state) then we need push more nationally. That means coaches getting out and scouting more players and sending more invites to Dabo Swinney Camps earlier. We want prospects to come to us with most position groups, but we need to be more aggressive with regards to Olineman.
South Carolina will never produce as many quality Olineman as Georgia or other states in the South. Just isn’t going to happen. If Clemson brings in a certain high profile 2020 QB from a state across the country—I might suggest mining that state and that QB’s connections to land some Olineman who will visit Clemson just for him.
Lesson #3: Robbie Caldwell isn’t the problem
Your Oline coaches job isn’t to be an elite recruiter. Your TE coach is supposed to be your elite recruiter and when both of your line guys aren’t great, that puts an added burden on other position coaches (good thing Jeff Scott is such an elite recruiter). Pittman at UGA is an elite recruiter and he was at UNC beforehand. Coach Smart has told him to recruit as many elite Olineman as he wants and in a couple of years they have built a line that pushed around Alabama in a championship game. But that is not the norm (best is the standard, of course, but Clemson can survive Caldwell as a recruiter).
Pearman is a bigger liability than Caldwell in recruiting (although the turkey talk doesn’t help). If Caldwell were a bad Oline coach and a bad recruiter that would be a problem, but he isn’t. The calls to fire Caldwell should stop. Caldwell is a folksy, older gentleman who fits the Clemson family mantra. He should retire when he is ready to retire. Regardless, Pittman will still be an elite recruiter when Thomas Austin or whoever is selected takes over as the Oline coach.
It is a tough hand at one of the most important position groups on the offense, especially with Trevor Lawrence at the helm and more greatness at QB to follow.
So where does that leave us? If you are Clemson, you know that you don’t have an ace recruiter or closer with your Oline coach. You also aren’t going to go over 15 at the position group. You also are getting hammered for not having more NFL players and your home state isn’t going to start producing more Olineman.
A few minor suggestions:
- Don’t leave Caldwell on an island. More joint visits. More support from support staff and more support from off campus resources. This also means Pearman and Streeter need to step it up in this area.
- The lack of NFL placements is jarring. Clemson should be doing better in this area. Hyatt will help if he goes high and sticks, but this is where you need to fight back with some better marketing/brand strategy for the Oline. Work with the creative department to improve in this area and push it through Instagram Stories.
- I’d love to say to carry more Olineman on the roster, but that isn’t going to happen. Already you are playing with fire with the low numbers—make sure your offer pool is large enough and worked hard enough. More on campus visits.
- You have an extra coach to recruit, the best support staff in the business, a national brand, and four straight playoffs—no excuses. That doesn’t mean that coaches should be expected to land a Webb every year, but you put yourself in that position when you only take two offensive line recruits for two out of three classes.
- I know we aren’t going to take any JUCO recruits. Understandable. Can we not entertain bringing in some senior olineman who are graduate transfers to fill a gap or two? Again, I realize this won’t likely happen, but there should be a discussion about it if scholarships are available and holes need to be filled going forward. There are upcoming gaps after only taking two Olinemen in two out of three classes that could be filled.
- I always say plan for attrition. We have been extremely lucky to not have injuries hamper the limited depth we have had on the Oline the past two-three years. Very few season ending injuries of consequence in a long while. DeHond has a neck/shoulder/nerve issue that is still healing. Clemson also needs to watch for the new transfer rules impacting every position, but especially at Oline.
Lesson #4: Get Dabo more involved
This isn’t on Dabo at all. This is on assistant coaches fighting for players and spots. Dabo has capped his numbers at 15 for Offensive line position. I would like that number to be up in the 16-18 range, but it isn’t going to change. The only way to get more bodies is to sell Dabo on players. Cooper Dawson got his offer after a grayshirt, in part, because he is a player who left an indelible impression on Dabo. I would also like to see Dabo used as a recruiting tool, Clemson’s best recruiting tool, at this position of need. More joint visits.
We are good on the offensive line right now, right?
Well, we aren’t bad, but running the ball against really, really bad rushing defenses doesn’t prove all that much. Duke, USCjr, Louisville, Wake (especially when we played them) were some of the worst rush defenses we have played in recent memory. Wow, they were bad.
The schedule hasn’t been that daunting for the Oline. The offensive line struggled against BC, NC State, and Texas A&M at times to run the ball. Tremayne Anchrum went from my prize underrated Oline recruiting scoop to a turnstile against BC.
But credit where credit is due—this is probably the best offensive line of the Swinney era. Two years ago we thought we had a great line, but Deshaun Watson made everyone look better. Last year things went south without DW as the sack rate went skyrocketing (granted we faced some elite pass rushers) and the line that was able to get some push on Bama after tiring them out the previous year got absolutely stoned without a down field passing game.
Still, this line has had a hole at RG all season. Pollard took a step backwards after being a starter at RT. Cervenka has stepped up against bad rushing teams and will be challenged in the playoff. Falcinelli has rebounded from being embarrassed in the opener. Hyatt is as solid and reliable as they come. Simpson has made strides as a pass blocker. Anchrum has been fine until he met an elite pass rusher at BC.
Overall, the line has improved in pass blocking as the season has progressed. But the line remains largely untested against quality competition. Clemson should be able to run against ND who has given up yardage on the ground, they need to run against ND, and if they can’t it doesn’t bode well for the playoff.
It also helps when you have a Heisman caliber running back and QB—just sayin...
Going undefeated is an amazing accomplishment. These are the glory days of offensive line recruiting. But one of the areas where dynasties crack—see Texas, FSU, and many other programs—is when the offensive and defensive lines recede. Constant vigilance is required if best is truly your standard (but you should still enjoy the winning).
What of Jackson Carman and his recruitment?
I love Carman. I am biased and probably think too much of him. But lets face facts—Clemson almost didn’t bring him to campus and didn’t think they had much of a shot through much of his recruitment in the fall. That was a serious miracle recruitment. It helps keep our talent level high (he still needs to work on moving his feet better for next year), but it doesn’t mean the process wasn’t flawed. Carry a bigger pool of players.
Clemson is now working to land 4* Will Putnam (6’4, 280) from Plant HS in Tampa, FL. Putnam is the composite number 78 overall player in the country. His recruitment is a must have for this class now that Webb is off the board. Clemson is battling with Florida State and Auburn for his commitment. And this is still a battle. Florida State and Auburn have suffered coaching losses and bad seasons, but are still trying to remain in the thick of the recruitment.
Clemson was somehow late to his recruitment and have struggled to make up ground. This is a perfect example. Analysts wanting to paint this in a pleasing light to Clemson and coaches will say—wow, Clemson was able to land a top 100 OL recruit this late in the game, great job! But why was Putnam not squarely on Clemson’s radar this entire time? If interior lineman were needed, why did we not grab Gwyn last year and have him set to contribute as a redshirt freshman next season (all last year the line was that we only wanted Tackles)?
Why did we not pursue Michael Tarquin harder? Why did we not bring Trevor Keegan in for a visit (spare me the cultural fit arguments)? Why not fight harder to flip any number of targets that Clemson got beat this cycle (and the number is high—higher than any other position group in recent memory—Hornibrook, Correll, Wanya Morris, Carpenter, Truss, etc)?
If Clemson can land Putnam then the talent level stays high if Clemson can hit on a couple more players, but landing Webb or one other elite Oline talent would have made all the difference with regards to depth.
Instead, Clemson is going to go after Cooper Dawson with a full offer and not the grayshirt they had been giving. I’m fine with the grayshirt, but question giving a full offer to someone who isn’t sure they want to play Oline and haven’t played in awhile. The Syracuse offer does give some weight to Clemson’s decision, but that just means we should take 4 Olineman this cycle (we have plenty of room on the roster, plenty).
Clemson’s recruiting class in 2019 is still really good. And Clemson is going to continue to recruit and play well in the future. Offensive line and DB/Safety were the two biggest areas of need. 2020 is already off to a much better start and the Oline is a priority with 5 important takes.
Clemson is pretty much done with recruiting this cycle, however. Tyler Davis is the DT we are going to land (very important). Ealy is the RB we are waiting on and then it is Oline recruiting with Putnam and Dawson and maybe a defensive name after the early signing period if Venables can persuade. One bright piece of news—the Putnam in home visit went well and Clemson is currently the leader. (I don’t know what folks were talking about with a potential flip of a committed player—Adrian Medley flipped to UCF and Tarquin to UF, Clemson was late to the game)