/NSD 2020 Notebook: Clemson Is College Footballs New 5-Star Factory

NSD 2020 Notebook: Clemson Is College Footballs New 5-Star Factory

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after Clemson defeated Ohio State 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Can Clemson actually improve? What will LSU’s encore look like? What does the future look like at USC? And who’s up for a national signing day Top 25? Adam Kramer tackles those questions and more in his signing day notebook. All recruiting and team rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

   

To trace the origins of this unrelenting college football juggernaut, one doesn’t have to go back far. It began in a gymnasium in Gainesville High School in 2013, where Chad Morris, Clemson’s former offensive coordinator, spent years watching Deshaun Watson play basketball.

Football was always a given with Watson. Morris was there merely to make appearances. To show face. For a good chunk of his Clemson tenure, Watson was one of the only players he recruited—a quarterback so gifted he could singlehandedly alter a program’s trajectory.

Back then, Clemson was in the infancy of its transformation under Dabo Swinney. Watson’s commitment to a program that wasn’t accustomed to top-five recruiting classes—like the one it secured this year—instantly altered the perception. And three years later, after Watson guided the Tigers over Alabama in the national championship, everything changed.

Now, this is the new normal. This is Alabama in a delightful shade of orange. This is what suffocating dominance looks like, and there is no reason to believe it will reverse course anytime soon.

“You can’t point to a spot on the horizon where Clemson doesn’t look like they are going to continue to be a juggernaut in terms of talent,” 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons says. “I think the 2020 recruiting class was a sign that they’re ready to contend for the No. 1 class. That is going to be the new standard.”

Since Watson, Clemson has added Trevor Lawrence—another generational quarterback with a national title of his own. And in this cycle, with Lawrence poised to play one more year before declaring for the NFL draft, it added DJ Uiagalelei, a 5-star, 246-pound quarterback capable of throwing a football more than 80 yards.

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - JANUARY 04: DJ Uiagalelei #5 of East team throws a pass against the West team during the All-American Game held at the Alamodome on January 04, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Logan Riely/Getty Images

Uiagalelei is unquestionably the face of the Tigers’ 2020 recruiting class. He’s also from California, which shows just how powerful Clemson’s reach has become.

The recent glut at the sport’s most important position is a luxury almost no other program has enjoyed. But Uiagalelei is merely a piece of a class that will push the dynasty forward.

The group includes defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, the No. 1 overall player. And the No. 7 overall player, defensive end Myles Murphy. And Demarkcus Bowman, a running back Simmons believes will be “the next Travis Etienne whenever his time comes.” And Trenton Simpson, the nation’s No. 1 outside linebacker who could fill the enormous shoes left by the multitalented Isaiah Simmons.

The list stretches deep. And while Clemson has secured top-15 and even top-10 classes over the past five years, this is something new.

“They were recruiting 5-stars, but now they’re getting more of them,” Barton Simmons says. “And most importantly, they haven’t really sacrificed their standards from a fit, character and philosophical standpoint. I mean, they haven’t had a decommitment in three years. They’re killing it now.”

While last season ended with a thud against LSU, the future couldn’t be more optimistic. Not just with the 2020-21 campaign, with Lawrence joined by wideout Justyn Ross, who led the team in receptions. And Etienne, who shocked the sport when he announced he was returning for his senior year after accumulating more than 1,600 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons.

But also the years to follow, which will be shaped by players in this class and others still to come. Athletes who would have never flocked to Clemson at this kind of pace 10 years ago, before two national championships and a record of 69-5 over the past five years.

The future isn’t just directly in front of Clemson. Sure, given all who will return, another run at a national title seems likely. But what’s happening now is what happens in so few places. And for many decades, it didn’t happen at Clemson.

But times have changed.

In late January, the Tigers picked up yet another 5-star commitment. Not for the class of 2020, which has mostly taken form, but instead for next year. Defensive end Korey Foreman, the No. 1 player in the class of 2021, verbally committed to the Tigers. Another California product willing to switch coasts.

Recent history says that commitment will hold. It also suggests more players of his caliber will follow—a trend that has taken on new life.

“There is no end in sight,” Barton Simmons adds. “This thing is here to stay.”

      

What’s Next for the Champs?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 14: Head Coach Ed Orgeron of the LSU Tigers talks with the media during the press conference after the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at the Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel on January 14, 2020 in New Orl

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Since putting the final touches on one of the most overwhelming seasons in recent memory, here is what transpired at LSU.

Dave Aranda, the team’s star defensive coordinator, became the head coach at Baylor. Joe Brady, the 30-year-old passing game coordinator who ignited the Tigers offense, became the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator. Nine underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow exhausted his eligibility and will likely next be asked to lead the Cincinnati Bengals back to relevancy.

It’s a lot. In fact, “a lot” fails to capture how much LSU has lost. The good news, however, is it won’t have to wait long for help.

The Tigers will welcome a top-five recruiting class, which is not surprising given Ed Orgeron’s history. That includes Arik Gilbert, one of the most coveted high school tight ends in the past decade. LSU also beefed up its secondary, as it usually does, with the additions of Elias Ricks (No. 2 cornerback) and Jordan Toles (No. 5 safety).

On offense, Kayshon Boutte (No. 2) will help overcome the exodus at wide receiver. And at quarterback, a position that will be judged much differently at LSU for years to come, Max Johnson (No. 10) has the size (6’4½”, 216 lbs) to make him an intriguing asset.

There are future stars scattered throughout the class, and they will join a roster stocked full of talented players waiting for their chances. It would be unreasonable to expect LSU to approach a season anything close to what we just witnessed, but reinforcements are coming.

      

Let’s Talk About USC for a Moment, Shall We?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Northwestern. Pittsburgh. Oregon State.

What do these programs share? As of the morning of national signing day, they all have higher-ranked recruiting classes than USC.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised. Two years of uncertainty surrounding a head coach with more uncertainty creates this kind of response. But for USC to deliver one of the worst recruiting classes in its conference is still perplexing.

Even more concerning? The way the Trojans have struggled to recruit from their home state. USC landed only two of the top 30 high school players in California.

Last year? Only three of the top 30.

There was a time when elite Golden State players would covet the opportunity to play for this program. But the unknown surrounding Clay Helton’s future makes the Trojans a tough sell.

A breakthrough season could change all that. But the recruiting struggles could have a long-term impact, regardless of who is asked to turn things around.

   

The Most Unique High School Football Player I’ve Ever Seen

Courtesy of Darnell Washington

But first, some transparency. I do not attend high school football games every Friday night like many recruiting writers and reporters. However, I have seen enough gifted athletes across all levels of football to have an idea of what greatness looks like.

And in that time, I have never seen anyone in the sport built quite like Darnell Washington.

At 6’8″ and 261 pounds, he is a 5-star prospect—a tight end who also logged snaps at defensive end at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas.

“I’ve told him before that he will be the Zion Williamson of college football,” David Hill, his assistant coach and mentor, told me in the spring when I profiled Washington for Bleacher Report. (Alongside his skills and physical attributes, his backstory—he has endured poverty, health issues with his mother and other life-altering circumstances—could make him a national star before long.)

Washington, who will play at Georgia, will be a fascinating weapon. It’ll likely take the coaching staff time to figure out the best way to use him, and he will take time to grow into that position. But if he develops and the offense can develop around him, it could be a diabolical football marriage.

   

2020’s Instant Impact Player: Bijan Robinson, Texas

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - JANUARY 04: Bijan Robinson #6 of the West team stands in the tunnel before the game against the East team during the All-American Game held at the Alamodome on January 04, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

Logan Riely/Getty Images

The nation’s No. 1 running back and No. 15 player overall will likely be asked to help power an offense that needs a surge. And there’s no reason to believe Robinson, who put up unfathomable numbers across his career at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona, won’t be up for it.

As a senior, he averaged nearly 18 yards per carry—using a blend of size (6’0″, 200 lbs), speed, power and wiggle that is rare at the position. When Texas began to struggle, many assumed Robinson would look elsewhere to play. Instead, he stayed true to his commitment.

“College football is better when Texas is good,” Robinson told me in the fall. “Trying to get them back to the top is my mindset. I mean, I could go to Ohio State or LSU or a team that’s already enjoying great success. But getting Texas back to where it needs to be is what my focus is.”

Robinson will likely join the running back rotation immediately. By the end of next season, his role will likely be much more than that.

   

National Signing Day Top 25

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 30: Head Football Coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes before a college football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Ann Arbor, MI. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Ranking the first three teams heading into the heart of the offseason was relatively easy. The rest? Not so much.

With recruiting classes in place and the transfer portal spitting out results earlier than ever, this Top 25 should hold true through spring football. If your program was slighted or omitted, please know that it was either personal or bias against you and/or your mascot.

1. Clemson

2. Ohio State

3. Alabama

4. LSU

5. Oregon

6. Georgia

7. Florida

8. Notre Dame

9. Penn State

10. Oklahoma

11. Michigan

12. Wisconsin

13. Minnesota

14. Texas A&M

15. Auburn

16. Oklahoma State

17. Texas

18. Utah

19. Boise State

20. Baylor

21. Iowa

22. North Carolina

23. Arizona State

24. Cincinnati

25. USC

   

Five Names You Need to Know in the Class of 2020

247 Sports

To be clear, this section is exclusively about names. It turns out that some of the best names in the class also have a chance to eventually blossom into stars, but this is a category that does not exclude based off star power. All parties are welcomed.

No, this is far simpler assignment. Here are our favorite names in the class of 2020.

Demon Clowney (DE, Ole Miss): Yes, he’s related to that Clowney. In fact, Demon (pronounced Da-Mon) Clowney is Jadeveon Clowney’s cousin. The No. 11 defensive end has both a first and last name that Rebels fans will soon fall in love with. (Plus, with some added size—he’s 6’4″, 225 pounds—he’s going to be a force.)

Chubba Purdy (QB, Florida State): A massive late commitment for new head coach Mike Norvell, Purdy (No. 7 dual-threat quarterback) provides hope at a position FSU desperately needs to resolve. And yes, hope will come in the form of a name that sounds like a cocktail you would order on a remote beach.

Gavin Beerup (QB, Wyoming): A 3-star recruit out of California with a name that will be celebrated in taverns around Laramie for years to come. Whether Beerup blossoms into a star or not, he is likely to be a program favorite the moment he arrives. The post-touchdown celebrations across campus could be epic.

Ajou Ajou (WR, Clemson): Yet another fascinating offensive weapon with size (6’3″, 210 lbs) for Clemson to work with. Ajou, who is from Alberta, Canada, has a name announcers will love to say when he generates a big play. And it probably won’t take long for them to test it out.

Gaard Memmelaar (OL, Washington): It would be a quality name without context, but the context pushes this one over the top. The fact that Gaard plays guard is truly exceptional. Until we learn of a quarterback named Qubee or a kicker named Kikr, this takes the cake.

   

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.