Today, we’ll take a look at two of the more popular positions: Quarterback and Running back. Given Clemson’s great talent at these positions during the Dabo era, there were certainly multiple options to consider, but the four players selected should be pretty well agreed upon among fans. Here’s a quick review of how we got these selections.
- The STS staff narrowed the ballot to just two players at QB, RB, WR-9, WR-2, WR-slot, TE, C, SLB, MLB, and WLB. Voters chose one of two options for the best Clemson player of the Swinney-era at each position.
- The STS staff narrowed the ballot to four players at OG, OT, DL, CB, and S. Voters chose two of four options for the best Clemson player of the Swinney-era. The top two vote-getters made the team.
- From April 29th to May 2nd, STS readers cast their vote on an online ballot for each position.
- Voting concluded with 502 total voters. Voters were not required to vote on every position.
- Results are unweighted. 98% of voters are Clemson fans. 97% of the vote came from people living in the US. South Carolina led the way with 44% of voters. 13% of votes came from people living in North Carolina and 12% from Georgia.
Quarterback: Deshaun Watson (2nd Team: Trevor Lawrence)
When talking about the best players in not just the Dabo era but in all of school history, Deshaun Watson tops the list for many. Watson was a highly touted QB prospect out of Gainesville, Georiga. It is just over 80 miles from Clemson’s campus, but square in the heart of Georgia Bulldog country. As has become a common refrain from the Mark Richt era Dawgs, UGA’s coaching staff didn’t feel Deshaun could play QB for them and offered him if he would consider moving to wide receiver. Clemson’s Chad Morris had been all in on Watson from his freshman year on, so naturally the star QB of the Gainesville High School Red Elephants decided to continue his career in Tigertown.
Watson enrolled in the Spring of 2014 where many felt he would compete early on with long time backup Cole Stoudt and much hyped redshirt sophomore Chad Kelly. After Kelly was let go from the team for disciplinary reasons, Deshaun and Stoudt were the main two guys. Stoudt got the nod for game one, although Deshaun wowed Clemson fans by throwing a deep touchdown on his first collegiate attempt on the road against Georgia. Stoudt played most of the game and Clemson fell to the Dawgs 45-21.
Many Tiger fans began calling for Deshaun to be starter, and an impressive showing in a blowout of SC State helped egg that on. After Stoudt struggled early in game three at Florida State, Deshaun came in and played phenomenally on the road in what appeared to be the passing of the torch. The Tigers fell just short against the Noles, falling 23-17 in overtime. He was named the starter following that performance.
Deshaun proceeded to light up both UNC and NC State at home before a hand injury against Louisville kept him out a few weeks. Deshaun made his grand return on the Flats at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, but an awkward move caused him to leave the game with a knee injury and Clemson proceeded to lose without him. Clemson’s offense was anemic at best without Deshaun, and it appeared that his season may be done. Deshaun sat out the win over Georgia State before making a surprise return for the rivalry game against South Carolina. Watson led the Tigers to a 35-17 home win, ending the Gamecocks’ five game winning streak in the series and giving Clemson its ninth win of the season. It was revealed after the game that Deshaun had played on a torn ACL. He then elected to have surgery and miss the Champs Sports Bowl in order to rehab for the 2015 year.
With questions about his durability swarming, Deshaun Watson came out of the floodgates in 2015 and led Clemson to one of its best seasons ever. The Tigers went 12-0 in the regular season, then proceeded to defeat North Carolina in the ACC Championship to claim the school’s first conference title since 2011. This put the 13-0 Tigers as the #1 seed in the college football playoffs. Deshaun also went on to New York where he finished second in the Heisman voting to Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Deshaun led Clemson to a 37-17 win in the semifinals against Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners, putting Clemson in the title game against Alabama. In an epic shootout, Watson threw for 405 and ran for 73 yards against the Tide as the Tigers fell just short, losing 45-40. While Clemson didn’t win the championship that year, Deshaun and company earned America’s respect and Clemson came in as a favorite to win it all the next year.
With high stakes in 2016, the Tigers started kind of slow. Clemson survived a tough road game at Auburn to open the season and then slept walked to a 30-24 win against Troy. A 56-0 drubbing against SC State and a 26-7 win against Georgia Tech had Clemson looking back to normal as College GameDay came to town to watch Deshaun face off against Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Watson tossed five touchdowns on 306 yards in Clemson’s thrilling comeback win over the Cards. With a few more blowouts and a pair of close wins against NC State and Florida State, it looked as if Clemson was in cruise control heading to the playoffs. Things then got shaky when #2 Clemson fell victim to the Pittsburgh Panthers, 43-42, leaving Clemson fans worried about their playoff chances. Fortunately, Michigan and Washington were also upset later that night, which prevented a significant fall down the polls.
Deshaun proceeded to lead the Tigers to a 35-13 victory against Wake Forest in a windy Winston-Salem to clinch the Atlantic division. Watson’s final performance in Death Valley was a beautiful 56-7 stomping of South Carolina where Deshaun threw six touchdowns and 347 yards en route to Clemson’s third straight win against the Gamecocks.
Watson led Clemson with a five touchdown performance in a 42-35 slugfest against Virginia Tech to clinch the ACC Championship, and then quarterbacked the Tigers to the memorable 31-0 Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State to set up the rematch with Alabama. Watson’s 3 touchdown, 420 yard performance helped earn Clemson it’s first national title since 1981. Deshaun leading the Tigers down the field in the fourth quarter before hitting Hunter Renfrow for the game winner is a moment that lives on in Clemson history.
Deshaun was selected 12th overall in the NFL draft by the Houston Texans, who are looking to make him the highest paid QB in the league.
QB2 of the All Dabo team is the current starter, Trevor Lawrence. Often referred to as Sunshine due to his resemblance to the long haired quarterback Ronnie Bass of “Remember the Titans.” Out of Cartersville, Georgia, Lawrence broke all of Deshaun Watson’s state records. After a dazzling freshman performance at Dabo Swinney Football Camp, Lawrence thought he’d have a Clemson offer in the bag, but the Tiger staff stayed true to their policy of not offering high school freshmen. Lawrence was still intrigued by Clemson and when Clemson eventually did offer, it was a no-brainer. Georgia had chosen to pursue instate QB Justin Fields out of Marietta, and well, we all know how that ended up for them.
Like with Deshaun, many felt that Lawrence should be named quarterback over incumbent starter Kelly Bryant. Lawrence flashed some signs of brilliance, but Bryant’s experience and grit in the win against Texas A&M helped him keep the job for a little longer. Lawrence outshined Bryant in a game four 49-21 win at Georgia Tech, giving him the nod to start and causing Bryant to elect to leave the team, redshirt, and subsequently transfer to Missouri.
The Lawrence-era got off to a shaky start when Trevor took a shot to the head against Syracuse and missed the second half. Luckily, Chase Brice was able to save the day, and Lawrence returned the next week to slaughter Wake Forest 63-3 in Winston-Salem. The Clemson machine with Lawrence kept rolling throughout the season and made another trip to the playoffs. Lawrence tossed 327 yards and three touchdowns in Clemson’s 30-3 semifinal win over Notre Dame. He tossed three more touchdowns and 347 yards against Alabama in Clemson’s 44-16 National Championship route of the Tide.
Early on in 2019 many hot takes were written about Trevor Lawrence having “taken a step back,” despite the fact the Tigers were still winning in mostly blowout fashion. Lawrence did toss twice as many interceptions in 2019 (8) but threw for more yards (3,665) despite the fact that his days were typically done in the third quarter because the Tigers were rolling their overmatched opponents. Lawrence should a lot of tenacity in leading Clemson in it’s Fiesta Bowl comeback against Ohio State in a very physical game. Lawrence struggled in the National Championship loss to LSU, but returns in 2020 looking to end his Clemson career on a high note.
Running Back: Travis Etienne (2nd Team: CJ Spiller)
Travis Etienne was a late offer by Clemson and ended up being Clemson’s first signee from Louisiana since linebacker Nick Watkins in 2003. Etienne entered 2017 as the third running back behind CJ Fuller and Tavien Feaster. Etienne showed some flashes of his speed and talent early on in some late appearances in blowouts before getting more regular carries. He eventually finished tied with Tavien Feaster for most carries on the team.
As a sophomore in 2018, he was the clear starter and ran for 24 touchdowns and 1,658 yards in 2018. He was a huge part in Clemson’s win over Syracuse as he scored the game winning touchdown. The phrase “feed ETN” became commonplace in Tiger fans’ lexicon as they clamored to see Etienne get more carries. Etienne had great playoff numbers running for a combined 195 yards and three touchdowns.
2019 was another huge year for Etienne as he ran for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns. Etienne also showed his ability as a receiver, catching two touchdowns gaining 98 yards through the air to help Clemson rally against Ohio State. Many hoped Etienne would have a huge homecoming in the championship in New Orleans after he struggled as a freshman in the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. Etienne had a better night (78 yards rushing and a touchdown) but it wasn’t quite the night hoped for as he had limited carries while Clemson fell to LSU. It was widely believed that night would be the last time we saw Travis don the orange and purple for the Tigers, as he was projected to possibly he a late first round pick. But Etienne shocked everyone later that week when he announced he would comeback for one last ride in Tigertown.
Etienne’s decision isn’t the first time a star Clemson back has forgone NFL dollars for another year in Clemson. Our RB2, CJ Spiller did just the same. For Clemson fans, Spiller is remembered as the guy that changed the program. A member of the recruiting class of 2006 from Lake Butler, Florida, Spiller was one of the biggest recruits in the nation.
Spiller had grown up watching Warrick Dunn and the Florida State Seminoles, and chose to wear Dunn’s number 28. He also lived less than 30 miles from the University of Florida’s campus. To put this all in perspective, the Noles had struggled in ‘05 but were a perennial top 10 team and not far removed from the championship days of the 1990’s and were still led by Bobby Bowden. Florida had just finished year one with an up and coming head coach Urban Meyer who had led Utah to an undefeated season in 2004. And down in South Florida, Miami was a few years removed from its 2001 National Title and was expected to be a major force in the ACC after joining in 2004. Getting Spiller to leave the state was a tall task, one that wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney took on.
Swinney visited CJ in high school and got him to sign and agreement on one of Dabo’s business cards to just come visit Clemson. CJ made a visit and all of the sudden the Tigers were in the mix. On signing day Spiller had the hats of the Gators and Noles on the table but then surprisingly pulled out a purple Clemson cap and signed with Clemson.
In 2006, the freshman Spiller shared the backfield with James Davis. The two made their names national during the 31-7 beatdown of Georgia Tech on national tv where they were dubbed Thunder (Davis) and Lightning (Spiller). America was treated to seeing Spiller torch Yellow Jacket defenders and then watched Davis and Spiller gleefully be interviewed by the Gameday crew, with Spiller wearing an Orange Bowl sticker on his purple Clemson uniform. Clemson was 7-1 and the toast of the college football world before a Thursday night game in Blacksburg derailed the season. Bud Foster’s Hokie defense stacked the box and forced Clemson to rely on it’s passing game, which floundered. Clemson then limped the rest of the season, finishing 8-5 with a disappointing loss to rival South Carolina and bowl loss to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.
As Clemson’s season crashed, the Florida Gators went on to win the National Championship behind veteran QB Chris Leak and freshman backup Tim Tebow, along with a slew of speedy playmakers. Spiller was reported to began feeling homesick, missing his family and his young daughter. Rumors began floating around that Spiller would leave Clemson to go to Florida, but CJ’s girlfriend and daughter moved to Clemson with him and he chose to stay. With junior quarterback Cullen Harper providing a solid passing attack, Spiller’s numbers dropped a bit as Clemson had a more balanced offense, and Clemson went on to finish 9-4 and came a few plays short of defeating Matt Ryan and the Boston College Eagles for the ACC Atlantic Division.
2008 looked to be a big year for Tommy Bowden and Clemson. James Davis elected to return as a senior, Spiller was a junior and the Tigers were the ACC favorite. Clemson started off the year rough by being stomped by Nick Saban’s Alabama squad in Atlanta. Even in a bad loss, Spiller did have one of the lone bright sports when he opened up the second half with a kickoff return for a touchdown. After opening with a 3-3 record, Bowden was let go after a Thursday night loss at Wake Forest, allowing Dabo Swinney to take over. Swinney got the Tigers to bowl eligibility and beat South Carolina, earning him the head coaching job. Spiller was a huge part in that, running for 629 yards and tacking on 436 receiving yards. Spiller was projected to be a late first rounder and many thought he’d follow James Davis to the league, but like Etienne, Spiller made the decision to come back.
Clemson went all in on the “Spiller for Heisman” campaign, famously releasing life sized posters of CJ that were gobbled up by Tiger fans quickly at local Bi Lo stores and then many were found being sold online for handsome profits. With Davis on the Cleveland Browns, Spiller was the main star in the backfield, with backup duty being split between Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. Spiller ran for a career high 1,212 yards and 12 touchdowns. Spiller opened up the 2009 season by running the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. In his first full season as a head coach, Dabo knew CJ Spiller and Jacoby Ford would be key to Clemson’s success. Swinney had his sons Will, Drew, and Clay Swinney (who were middle school and elementary school aged) stood on the sideline and chart how often Spiller and Ford touched the ball, and if the pair weren’t getting the ball enough, the boys were to alert their dad of this.
Spiller accomplished a lot that year despite being hampered by a turf toe injury that he suffered in the first game. The Tigers won the ACC Atlantic for the first time and Spiller had a monster game in the championship against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Spiller had 20 carries for 233 yards and four touchdowns, but Clemson’s defense could not hang on and the Tigers fell 39-34 in Tampa. Spiller became the first and still the only player to be named ACC Championship Most Valuable Player in a losing effort. The Tigers accepted a bid to the Music City Bowl where CJ and Clemson knocked off Kentucky 21-13.
Spiller went on to be the ninth pick of the NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills. He had some nice early seasons but competed with Fred Jackson for carries in the backfield. Many Tiger fans were frustrated with then Bills’ coach Chan Gailey’s misuse of Spiller and were happy when he signed with the Saints. CJ bounced around the league a little more, going to the Seahawks and then the Jets. Spiller’s final stop was with the Chiefs, which featured a bizarre sequence in the 2017 season which saw the Chiefs continuously sign, cut, and then resign CJ. The Chiefs did this about five times, tallying a total of nine transactions involving CJ in that season alone. He played in one game for the Chiefs.
CJ is now a regular on the Clemson sideline and a member of the IPTAY board. Spiller’s #28 has been retired, but was brought out of retirement for Tavien Feaster, who wore a patch on the jersey honoring Spiller.
Dabo-Era All-Clemson 1st & 2nd Teams
|Pos.||1st Team||2nd Team|
|Pos.||1st Team||2nd Team|
|QB||Deshaun Watson||Trevor Lawrence|
|OT||Mitch Hyatt||Brandon Thomas|
|OT||Jackson Carman||Chris Hairston|
|OG||John Simpson||Tyrone Crowder|
|OG||Eric Mac Lain||Gage Cervenka|
|C||Jay Guillermo||Dalton Freeman|
|RB||Travis Etienne||CJ Spiller|
|WR||Deandre Hopkins||Mike Williams|
|WR||Sammy Watkins||Artavis Scott|
|WR||Hunter Renfrow||Adam Humphries|
|TE||Dwayne Allen||Jordan Leggett|
Past Articles in This Series: