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Best of Dabo: Swinney's highest-rated recruits over the years

CLASS OF 2020 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | State | Position | Team


D.J. Uigalelei
D.J. Uigalelei

Mark Pszonak contributed to this report.

With the recent commitments of top 10 recruits DJ Uiagalelei and Bryan Bresee in the 2020 class, it got me to thinking: Who are the highest-rated recruits Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has recruited over the years? Uiagalelei would be tied with Trevor Lawrence and Bresee would be tied for fourth. Here are the others.

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1. Trevor Lawrence 

The skinny: Despite his impressive collection of offers from most of the top programs in the country, Lawrence decided to end his process early with a commitment to Clemson during his junior season. He never wavered off that pledge. After beating out Kelly Bryant for the starting job in Death Valley, Lawrence had a magical true freshman season that culminated in a national championship victory over Alabama. With two seasons remaining with the Tigers, expectations will be through the roof for the sophomore quarterback.

Farrell’s take: Lawrence is the best quarterback I’ve ever scouted in all my years at Rivals.com, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. His recruitment was straightforward and direct, which speaks to his persona. Once he committed he was done, which is the way it is with most Clemson recruits.

2. Dexter Lawrence

The skinny: In December of his senior season, Lawrence committed to Clemson over Alabama, Ohio State, Florida, NC State, North Carolina and others. The Gators were considered his favorite team growing up, but the Tigers won out. While Lawrence’s final season in Death Valley was abruptly ended by a suspension related to a failed drug test, he still enjoyed an extremely successful collegiate career with the Tigers. He was then selected by the New York Giants with the 17th overall pick, and he will be looked upon to help lead a revamped defensive unit.

Farrell’s take: Lawrence started off as a potential Gators lean and then some of the in-state programs became an issue, but Clemson offered the perfect blend of big-time football and location. He was once our No. 1 player overall and slid to No. 2 behind Rashan Gary. Regardless, he’s one of the top defensive tackles I’ve seen, especially at his size.


3. Xavier Thomas 

The skinny: While he finished his high school career at IMG Academy in Florida, the South Carolina-born Thomas seemed destined to play his college ball at either Clemson or South Carolina. At different points both programs seemed to lead, but when he was ready to make a final decision he committed to the Tigers in early April. Despite playing behind a defensive line that was full of future NFL Draft picks, Thomas still showcased all of his abilities while finishing with 33 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Now with the spotlight on him, it will be interesting to see how he responds.

Farrell’s take: If you remember correctly, Thomas started off as a South Carolina lean and was compared to Jadeveon Clowney. Things quickly changed, especially when he left the state to play for IMG and Clemson closed on him strong. He’s going to be a star. He just needed to wait his turn behind numerous first-rounders.

4. Rahshaun Smith 

The skinny: Smith committed to Clemson early but then re-opened his process to take a closer look at a few other schools. Eventually, after also taking official visits to Oregon, LSU, Maryland and Auburn, he recommitted to Clemson at the Under Armour All-American Game. Smith has struggled to make an impact on the field with the Tigers thus far, totaling 28 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and one sack in 13 career games. Both the coaching staff and fans will be expecting more from him this season.

Farrell’s take: Shaq Smith was a two-time commitment to Clemson, proving Swinney means business when he talks about committed recruits not being allowed to take visits. Smith had to de-commit to look around, but ended up back at Clemson, although we are waiting to see his high school talent take over in college. This was a kid who could play middle or outside linebacker.

5. Tony Steward

The skinny: Leading into National Signing Day, Florida State was seen as the heavy favorite to land Steward. However, during a press conference he pulled a stunner by committing to Clemson. Steward’s time in Death Valley failed to live up to expectations, with only 102 tackles and four sacks in 60 career games. After going undrafted in 2015, he was signed as a free agent by Buffalo, where he played seven games as a rookie. However, he was cut the following spring, and after failed attempts with New England and New Orleans he saw his NFL career quickly come to an end.

Farrell’s take: Steward was a big-time get for Swinney out of Florida because everyone expected him to end up at Florida State. This was actually one of the bigger surprises in the country that year, but injuries derailed his career, which is a shame. He was one of the most athletic linebackers I’ve seen in the last many years and had so much potential.

6. AJ Terrell

The skinny: Terrell trimmed his list of top schools down to Clemson, South Carolina and Florida before committing to the Tigers in August. As a true freshman, Terrell saw limited playing time, but he began to showcase his potential in 2018 with 53 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. His most memorable play of the season came in the national championship game, when he returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown.

Farrell’s take: Terrell was a freak out of high school, a tall kid who could play cornerback and had track speed. He’s one of many great gets by Clemson from the state of Georgia and he should end up as a potential first-round pick down the line.


7. Andrew Booth 

The skinny: While Clemson was seen as the clear leader for several months, Auburn made this a tight battle down the stretch. However, the annual summer BBQ held in Death Valley for recruits finally put the Tigers over the top with a commitment in late July. Five-star recruits at most schools would be expected to contribute early, but at Clemson, with the amount of talent in front of him, it will be interesting to see how much playing time he receives this fall. Either way, he has the potential to be a star down the line.

Farrell’s take: As with Terrell, this was close at one point but Clemson always had the lead for another Georgia five-star. Booth hasn’t impacted yet, but he will as the Tigers have a need at corner. He has size, length and great speed.

8. Justyn Ross

The skinny: Ross had his choice of schools from coast-to-coast, but seemed destined to stay in-state to play for either Alabama or Auburn for the majority of his recruitment. However, a very successful official visit to Death Valley in December changed everything. So, despite taking visits to both the Tide and Tigers in January, he ended up committing to Clemson on National Signing Day. Despite being a part of a loaded receiving corps, Ross still excelled throughout the season. He then saved his best for last with 12 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the national semifinals and championship game.

Farrell’s take: This was impressive. Swinney marched into Alabama and took away a wide receiver the Crimson Tide coveted - and no one thought he could. Ross had an amazing freshman season and will be a star for the next two years if he stays healthy. This is one of the more impressive recruiting jobs of the Swinney era.

9. Tee Higgins 

The skinny: Higgins initially committed to the in-state Vols leading up to his junior season, but then decommitted from Tennessee after taking a visit to Clemson in January. The Tigers made him a priority from that point on and picked up his commitment in July.

After finishing his true freshman season with 17 receptions for 345 yards and two touchdowns, Higgins began to flourish in 2018 with 59 receptions for 936 yards and 12 touchdowns, which placed first both on the team and in the ACC.

Farrell’s take: Higgins is another out-of-state five-star grab for Clemson, but not really a huge surprise as they have been producing elite wideouts for years leading up to his recruitment. He had a huge season last year, will likely have a great junior year and be a potential first-rounder. His size and speed combination is amazing and he reminded me a bit of AJ Green coming out.


10. Sammy Watkins

The skinny: While he held offers from the in-state trio of Miami, Florida State and Florida, two unofficial visits to Clemson put the Tigers over the top. His relationship with the coaching staff also helped to seal the commitment, which happened during his senior season. His three seasons in Death Valley saw him become one of the most exciting and productive players in the country. After finishing with 240 receptions for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns during that span, he was drafted by Buffalo with the fourth overall selection in 2014.

While he has been productive in the NFL, he has not met most people’s expectations. Currently with the Kansas City Chiefs, he has a chance to have a huge season in 2019 with Patrick Mahomes in charge of the offense and Ty Hill’s future in doubt.

Farrell’s take: Watkins was another big commitment early for Swinney, like Steward, as Clemson marched into South Florida and pulled Watkins out with relative ease. He had a huge impact at Clemson and is one of the reasons so many great wide receivers followed in his path. He was a great route runner, had excellent speed and his body control was off the charts out of high school.