Ah, the good ole transfer portal. Just the sheer mention of it will trigger the ire of many Clemson fans.
Most assume that Clemson’s lack of recruiting activity from the portal has become a team weakness, and it gives our competition the upper hand. But is there actually any truth to that assumption?
To determine that, we need to evaluate more than just two quarterbacks from the last two years whom I need not mention to real Tiger fans. The transfer portal began in 2018, coincidentally, the last year that Clemson won a National Championship. The next year, Clemson lost badly to the “he who not be named” led LSU Tigers. .
Clearly, transfer quarterback Joe Burrow was the only reason Clemson lost. Or was he? Well, for starters LSU had five players from that team drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Make that six if you count Ja’Marr Chase who opted out of the 2020 collegiate season, but was still drafted in the first round.
It’s pretty safe to say this was a historically talented team. Clemson certainly has their fair share of NFL players, but let’s review what they didn’t have that year. Does the name Power Rangers ring a bell? And no, not the Mighty Morphin type. I’m talking Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant.
Lawrence, Wilkins, and Ferrell were ALL drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Austin Bryant was drafted on day three. Backup Albert Huggins went undrafted but was still picked up by the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent.
I’m sorry, but you don’t lose that much talent and depth without losing some of the ferocity that had Tua Tagovailoa seeing ghosts. Having these guys would not have guaranteed victory against LSU, but I’m pretty sure Joe Burrow wasn’t complaining about their absence.
The following year Clemson takes another Mike Tyson style haymaker in the CFP, this time courtesy of OSU, led by the arm of, you know it, another transfer QB. Not that I need to mention his name for Clemson fans, but in case you were living up under a rock last year, he goes by the name of Justin Fields.
The first thing I think about when remembering (or trying not to) this game was the shot of the TV in the OSU locker room. It revealed the score of the outcome of the 2019 CFP Fiesta Bowl, Clemson 29 OSU 23. It was placed there to remind and motivate the Buckeyes from the previous year’s heartbreaking loss. And their players got to see it. Every. Single. Day. OSU players were clearly motivated to play Clemson again.
Digging a little deeper than emotions, a familiar Clemson culprit reared its ugly head in that game. Clemson had just 44 rushing yards on 22 attempts. Whhhaaattttt? That doesn’t sound right. Well, if you review Travis Etienne’s rushing stats from the 2020 regular season, it isn’t all that surprising.
Etienne’s yards per carry for the 2020 season were down 2.4 yards from the previous year. With Etienne being drafted in the first round, especially being a running back, it clearly was not him that regressed. The problem was the offensive line.
Clemson had to replace four starters from the previous year. Because of Covid, and the shutdown, the 2020 unit never really got a chance to gel prior to the season. Anyone who knows football will tell you that this position group in particular must be on the same page in order to be successful. This never came to fruition for our Clemson squad, and they were manhandled by OSU.
You have to ask yourself……would a transfer player have helped Clemson? Fair question, but that answer is likely no. Star offensive and defensive linemen aren’t very common in the transfer portal. Did transfer quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Fields help LSU and OSU claim victory? Sure they did. But didn’t Clemson already have Trevor Lawrence? With DJ Uiagalelei as a backup no less?
No need of a transfer quarterback there. Also, consider who beat OSU, and played LSU down to the wire in 2019. Our old nemesis, Alabama. Bama rolled OSU out of the building by halftime and came within 4 points of LSU, with a gimpy Tua at quarterback. How did they do it? By having a loaded and deep offensive and defensive line through solid recruiting and development.
Nick Saban rarely takes transfers, but that didn’t hinder him one bit. A quick look at the top 10 all-time recruits at Clemson (according to 247sports) reveals a shocking truth. Seven of the ten came within the last 4 years.
Folks, Dabo Swinney wasn’t gifted a blueblood college football program that churns out highly-rated recruits like butter. It wasn’t until very recently that Swinney was able to regularly recruit the elite talent we now enjoy. Hence the reason for most of our all-time talent to come from the last few years.
He built the program, in its current form, from the ground up to compete with teams who have historically gotten the most talented players due to their blueblood legacy. He molds his football players and program into a family. He simply isn’t going to tell one of his players “Sorry, your spot’s taken. There’s a guy in the portal with one more star than you.”
How can Swinney ask his players to be all in if he and Clemson can’t be? Now It would be foolish to think that Clemson won’t be involved in recruiting the portal at some point. It would just have to be the right situation and player.
After all, Clemson doesn’t just hand out offers to anyone. A Clemson offer is among the hardest to come by when compared to almost every other Power-5 team. There was an article on 247sports by Chris Hummer titled “Alabama and Clemson lapping the field in 5-star development”. Don’t think for one second that high school recruits, who are vying to be developed and have a shot at making it to the NFL, aren’t reading that.
In closing, it’s safe to say that Swinney is not only recruiting but developing players at a level most never thought possible at Clemson. In short, he is making what we once thought impossible, possible. With that being said, he has earned the right to utilize the portal as he sees fit.