The early exodus by juniors Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green wasn’t part of Dabo Swinney’s plan for 2016.
Swinney doesn’t make assumptions when it comes to roster management, which was why, as Clemson built its 2016 recruiting board, defensive back wasn’t viewed as a need.
The decisions by Alexander and Kearse to enter the 2016 NFL Draft weren’t a huge surprise, but until they officially cut ties, Swinney’s hands were tied. Green was somewhat of a surprise.
“We didn’t have one senior on our entire roster in the secondary, so it’s kind of hard to go recruit when you don’t have a scholarship for the guys,” Swinney said.
“You have to plan on all of your guys coming back, but we certainly knew that we had some juniors that would probably consider, maybe going pro early, but we don’t know.”
Swinney was faced with filling a talent chasm in the secondary when Alexander, Kearse and Green made their declarations on Jan. 13, two days after Clemson fell to Alabama in the National Championship game. The chasm deepened the next week when TCI learned Jeff Gibson would transfer.
That left Swinney and his staff exactly three weeks until National Signing Day to fill the void.
“We had to hit the ground running, really with a couple of weeks to get in done in January,” Swinney said, “And the thing that’s really unique about that is we were able to say: Who are the best guys out there?”
Clemson already had a commitment from Brian Dawkins Jr., son of the Clemson and Philadelphia Eagles legend and a holdover from the 2015 haul. Dawkins accepted a greyshirt, which delayed his entry to the program for a year.
Trayvon Mullen (Pompano Beach, Fla.) was first targeted by Clemson about two years earlier. The four-star cornerback returned to campus for the first official visit weekend of the month.
On Signing Day, Mullen was up first on ESPNU’s list of live announcements, and Clemson won out over Florida State, LSU, Louisville and TCU.
“That was huge to be able to go and get Trayvon Mullen was big for us,” Swinney said. “You lose a guy like Mackensie Alexander — Trayvon has been a guy that we’ve been recruiting a long time, but circumstances changed once Mackensie left.”
A few days after Mullen’s official visit, and a day after Gibson’s transfer, Clemson added a commitment from lightly-recruited safety Nolan Turner (Vestavia Hills, Ala.).
“Here’s a guy that we had in our camp, knew all about,” Swinney said, “Then because of the expansion of our board and attrition — to be able to get a guy like Nolan Turner at 6-2, 190 and can run 4.4 and has all the intangibles to go with those measurables.”
For Turner, the plan was to walk-on at Alabama, where his father, the late Kevin Turner, played football with Swinney. The younger Turner mostly had offers and interest from smaller, lower-level programs before Clemson came along.
“I don’t know why other people haven’t evaluated him, but he’ll be as good a signee as there is in this class,” Swinney said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
K’Von Wallace (Highland Springs, Va.) had a similar type of recruiting profile before the calendar flipped to 2016. The three-star committed to Cincinnati in July before Clemson and Ohio State came calling in the new year.
He visited Clemson on the final official weekend of the month. Like Mullen, Wallace made his call on Signing Day.
“Here’s a guy, to me, is a lot like Marcus Gilchrist, very dynamic like that,” Swinney said. “Here’s a kid, this summer, he only had James Madison and Cincinnati (offers) — that’s not a negative on those schools — that’s great for them for evaluating this kid, but that was one of the only offers that he had.”
Swinney believes Clemson was “fortunate” to land Wallace, because of the versatility he’ll had to the defensive backfield.
“This guy can run. He can play corner, both safeties, he can play nickel — there’s a lot we’re going to be able to do with this guy, just like the way Marcus was,” Swinney said.
Then there was four-star safety Isaiah Simmons of Olathe, Kan. Clemson swooped in and scored an official visit on the final weekend, after he’d already visited Michigan, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois. Many believed Michigan was the team to beat until Simmons committed to Clemson on Tuesday before Signing Day.
“To be able to go to Kansas and get Isaiah Simmons — man, what a great prospect and family coming in here,” Swinney said.
Landing Simmons and the other three within the span of three weeks, according to Swinney, is a testament to just how far Clemson has come in the last five years, growing the brand with a reputation for winning and preparing the best players for the next level.
Losing Alexander, Kearse and Green might hurt as the defense transitions this season, but the return on investment may have been realized during those three weeks.
“Signing some of these DBs was huge for us, so I’m really proud of what we were able to get done in that particular area,” Swinney said, “Because it wasn’t a huge need, but became one, and so the strength of our brand allowed us to get the type of people we needed to at the DB spot.”
—This is an insert from TCI’s preseason magazine “Unfinished Business — An insider look at Clemson’s 2016 season.” If you did not get an issue of “Unfinished Business” you can order one here.
–Photo Credit: Robert Duyos-USA TODAY Sports