CLEMSON | If not for the decision C.J. Spiller made five years ago, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows he would not have landed another highly ranked recruiting class on Wednesday.
Coveted linebacker Tony Steward of St. Augustine, Fla., followed Spiller's footsteps, suprising familiy and friends by leaving the Sunshine State to play college football at Clemson.
Spiller, a former Florida prep star and current Buffalo Bills tailback, called Swinney with congratulations when Steward spurned Florida State.
The Tigers also held on to two more highly regarded players from the Sunshine State in tailback Mike Bellamy of Punta Gorda, Fla., and receiver Sammy Watkins of Fort Myers, Fla.
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Those two had pledged to Clemson for months. It was Steward's selection that shocked some classmates and family members assembled for his televised signing ceremony Wednesday morning.
"Clemson's someplace I can grow," Steward said on ESPNU.
Steward's call capped a strong finish for Swinney, who overcame the Tigers' first losing season in 12 years and an overhaul of his offensive staff to land what some analysts consider a top 10 group of 29 players.
"Today's probably not possible if not for a guy like C.J.," Swinney said.
It was Spiller who pulled on a Clemson cap five yeas ago when both Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and Florida coach Urban Meyer thought they had the Lake Butler, Fla., runner locked down.
Steward told Swinney on Tuesday night he'd be a Tiger.
Swinney was instantly energized before anxiety took control. "It's going to be a long night," he told Clemson recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott.
Scott had briefed Steward months ago in their visits how difficult it could be disappointing hometown folks, even showing him a video of Spiller's college selection.
But Steward held firm and led a closing charge from the Tigers, who went 6-7 in Swinney's second full season.
Soon after, linebacker Stephone Anthony of Wadesboro, N.C., who some analysts rate higher than Steward, picked the Tigers. Six-foot-6 offensive lineman Spencer Region of Cullman, Ala., part of ESPN's top 150, joined the party as did defensive end Roderick Byers of Rock Hill, who last week committed to Oregon.
"Shout out to my Clemson Tigers racking recruits in," tweeted Da'Quan Bowers, the Tigers' All-American defensive end leaving for the NFL.
And Clemson might not be finished.
The nation's No. 1 prospect, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of Rock Hill, says he was impressed by his visit to Clemson last week and had the Tigers in a final three with Alabama and South Carolina.
Clemson's class "makes me want to go there, too," he said on ESPNU. "Got people on their team trying to win just like me."
Clowney isn't expected to announce until his birthday, Feb. 14.
Swinney says despite the large group, he's got room for any uncommitted players wanting to be Tigers.
Clemson was rated eighth overall according to Rivals.com, 10th by ESPN and 11th by Scout.com.
Those are lofty projections for a team that looked in disarray after the season. Clemson was hammered by rival South Carolina for a second-straight season, had its first losing season since 1998 and looked inept on offense despite a returning standout in quarterback Kyle Parker.
Swinney dismissed offensive coordinator Billy Napier and running backs coach Andre Powell last month. He hired Chad Morris of Tulsa to direct Clemson's offense.
Clemson's prospects were pounced on by rival recruiters, yet held firm.
"Not only did they stay together, they got stronger," Swinney said.