Clemson University

How Clemson is raiding Tennessee for top football talent

Tee Higgins
Tee Higgins

While the Clemson football program has successfully mined talent in nearby states such as North Carolina, Georgia and Florida for years, Tennessee hasn’t exactly been a traditionally fertile recruiting ground for the Tigers.

Then 2016 happened.

Clemson’s latest commitment from a high school standout from the Volunteer State came Monday when Tee Higgins – a rising senior and one of the highest-rated wide receivers in the class of 2017 – cast his lot with coach Dabo Swinney’s team.

Higgins’ commitment gives Clemson three from Tennessee for the next recruiting cycle, which is rather notable considering the Tigers list only one player from that state – senior center Jay Guillermo – on their current roster.

Higgins was preceded in his commitment to Clemson by one of the state’s top running backs, Cordarrian Richardson of Memphis, and the state’s No. 2 receiver behind Higgins, Amari Rodgers of Knoxville.

To add insult to injury for the University of Tennessee, the Tigers pilfered Higgins and Rodgers from the Volunteers’ backyard; it’s also noteworthy that Rodgers is the son of former Tennessee quarterback and current Southern Cal offensive coordinator Tee Martin.

This sudden influx of talent from a heretofore relatively untapped resource isn’t so much a major expansion of the Tigers’ recruiting footprint as much as it is simply a prime example of the spoils afforded a program coming off five consecutive double-digit victory seasons and a National Championship Game appearance.

There are other factors at play, of course, which could include, but are not limited to, Swinney’s personality, Clemson’s campus and enthusiastic fan support, the presence of Heisman finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson, assistant coach Dan Brooks’ Tennessee connections, and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott’s marketing of Clemson as “Wide Receiver U.”

Don’t underestimate the power of that latter factor. Higgins and his close friend Rodgers certainly are well aware that Clemson has produced seven NFL receivers over the past six years, and that they could join the procession a few years hence.

Essentially, Swinney and his assistants find themselves in the enviable position where they’re able to “cherry pick” the cream of the crop, offering only players who meet their specific needs while annually going toe-to-toe with Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State for the nation’s top prospects.

The Tigers have gleaned the top talent from North Carolina for years; now it appears they’ve taken their game to Tennessee.

“As we’ve had success, we get people calling us,” Swinney said. “We have to be very careful on who we offer. We’re not going to go on wild goose chases.

“All of a sudden, they’re not just interested, they’re coming down (for visits). And once we get them on our campus, we have a shot. People like it here.”

Apparently. According to ESPN, Clemson owns commitments from three of Tennessee’s top eight players, and the Tigers might not be done. Clemson has extended offers to two more of the Volunteer State’s best – No. 1 prospect Trey Smith, an offensive tackle, and JaCoby Stevens, the No. 3 prospect.

And although he’s not from Tennessee, Hunter Johnson – a five-star quarterback from Indiana – flipped from the Vols to the Tigers in December.

That, combined with the pledges from Higgins, Rodgers and Richardson, might make Swinney the most reviled man in Knoxville, Tenn., since Lane Kiffin.

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