Of the 20 players Dabo Swinney and his staff signed, none were from Georgia.
For a program of Clemson's stature and location, located 28 miles from the South Carolina/Georgia State line, this was unacceptable. The Peach State is part of the Tigers' recruiting breadbasket, a key area given the more limited population base in their home state of South Carolina.
Two years later, the Tigers' Peach perception has changed – big-time.
This past national signing day, Clemson made an impressive Georgia haul, raiding the state for five high school signees, led by Gainesville (Ga.) four-star quarterback Deshaun Watson, rated by Scout.com as the nation's No. 3 QB recruit.
In fact, all of the Tigers' Georgia signees ( Watson, wide receiver Demarre Kitt, linebacker Korie Rogers, tight end Milan Richard and tailback Adam Choice) were among Scout's top 35 recruits from the talent-rich state.
Counting Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy wide receiver Kyrin Priester, a Snellville, Ga., native who originally signed with Clemson in 2013 and enrolled in January following a prep-school semester, Clemson has signed 10 Georgia natives over the past two recruiting cycles.
And it isn't stopping there: on national signing day, the Tigers got a commitment from Suwanee, Ga., offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, rated as the No. 2 OT in the Class of 2015. He joins Decatur, Ga., wideout Shadell Bell, who committed last November, among others.
Clemson sells a family atmosphere to its potential recruits, and that pitch has been very successful in building the Tigers' family, especially within Georgia's borders.
"They cut right to the chase," Savannah Calvary Day School coach Mark Stroud, Richard's high school coach, said of Clemson's coaches. There wasn't any kind of front or nonsense. They're just really down-to-earth authentic people who care about the kids they're recruiting. A lot of places out there, I'm sure it can be a meat market. But Clemson is a place that really cares about kids."
Stroud knows this well. Before coming to Savannah, he spent 16 years as the head coach at Toombs County (Ga.), where Clemson recruited and signed defensive end Nick Eason, who went on to a 10-year NFL career.
Richard might be the best example of how Clemson's "family" beat family.
Richard is the nephew of Georgia legend and Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, a fact Clemson recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott didn't find out until making the four-plus hour drive to Savannah.
"In my first conversation with Milan, I said, ‘To be honest, I don't need to practice recruit,'" Scott said. "If (Georgia) is where you end up, no harm, no foul, and we'll move on.'"
Richard said that wasn't the case, and he and his parents agreed to visit campus. Once there, they fell in love with Clemson.
"I think they create a family atmosphere," Stroud said. "Coaches are very down to earth, very authentic and that's a big plus for (Richard). I think it's a perfect fit. He comes from a very good family, very close-knit, family oriented, and I think he felt the same thing at Clemson. They just seem to create an environment that's down to earth and family oriented, not so much fast-paced."
Choice's coach felt much the same way. Bill Shaver has been a longtime head coach and assistant in the state of Georgia, serving as Thomas County (Ga.) Central's head coach for the past six years.
Choice, an intelligent player who carries a 3.8 GPA and will convert from quarterback to tailback in college, had a national recruitment with suitors like Stanford and Texas. Originally, Shaver said, Choice wanted to play in the SEC.
"He told me, ‘When I walked on campus and talked to the coaches, I felt most comfortable,'" Shaver related. "I can't put my finger on why that is. I just feel really comfortable when I'm there.' What I hope happens is that a kid has a lot of choices and knows what he wants when he steps on campus and hangs out with the players and coaches.
"Adam knew that last spring. He said, ‘Let's get this over with. I want to commit to Clemson. I know where I want to go.'"
Shaver said that Choice's recruiter, tight ends/special teams coach Danny Pearman, has built a strong relationship with his program.
Clemson recruited highly-touted Thomas Central defensive end Ray Drew (who wound up at Georgia) hard, but Shaver said there were no hard feelings when Drew chose the Bulldogs. He said Swinney is "down to earth, transparent and you can see he cares about the individual."
"It was never a pressure situation," he said. "They said, if Clemson is a fit for you, we want you to be here. If not, find the fit that's best. They want what's best for the player and if they can help them out they will."
That approach is appreciated. Clemson signed Choice and is in the mix for highly-touted defensive end Austin Bryant, a rising senior who is among the top 2015 prospects in Georgia.
"Every time coach Pearman sees him, he shakes Austin's hand – they know him down here," Shaver said. "Coach Swinney has been here and walked through the weight room. Austin sees him and knows he's important to him. We enjoyed when they recruited Ray and they did a great job with Adam."
Building such relationships is crucial in the Peach State.
Texas, Florida and California are the top three states in producing college football recruits (Texas had 2,147 Division I signees from 2008-13), but Georgia is a strong fourth, producing 950 D-I signees in the same period. The No.5 state, Ohio, had 909 while No. 6, Alabama, had 502; South Carolina was 17th with 228 D-I recruits in that span.
In Georgia, football matters.
"Georgia high schools put a very big priority on having a good football program," Shaver said. "The schools invest time and money and kids see that it's important. In Thomasville, we talk about football year-round. Other sports, people like them, but football is it. In south Georgia, that's where it is. It's like Kentucky and basketball. There, everyone talks about basketball. In Georgia, it's football."
"I think you have a real high level of coaches in the state of Georgia," he said. "It's very important to the state. Across the board, you get a lot of coaches from surrounding states coming here. Other states don't pay as well. And you have a real good combination with kids who are good athletes in the state of Georgia."
Georgia fits right in Clemson's recruiting radius, a crucial factor for Scott.
"I think when you look at the Southeast and our map, since coach Swinney took over as coach, we have a 250-mile radius around Clemson and wherever that takes you, that's where we need to spend a large amount of time," Scott said. "That covers the state of South Carolina and gets you into a big part of Georgia and North Carolina.
"Anybody we can get in here that can drive in from three, four hours, our chances of signing them go up."
The perfect fit, however, is more important than signing a quota from a particular state, Swinney said.
"(In 2012) it worked out that way," he said of the limited Georgia haul. "Some years we might only sign one. Every class is based on needs. We might be in other areas, sign more from Florida than Georgia. Where the guys are that fit is where we're trying to be. We have great relationships in place and do a good job of developing players here. As long as we continue to do things the right way, we'll always be able to recruit the best of the best."
Recently, those players have come from Georgia – and that's a good thing for Clemson's future fortunes.
"It's about finding the right fit," Scott said. "The needs we have for our class and what's right for our program. Coach Swinney and our staff take a lot of pride in that. We don't have a perfect team, but we have a team of great young men, character-oriented, who want to do the right thing."
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