The ebb and flow of Clemson football recruiting

Clemson football Head Coach Dabo Swinney speaks during National Signing Day press conference in Clemson, S.C. Wednesday, February 2, 2022.Clemson National Signing Day Feb 2
Clemson football Head Coach Dabo Swinney speaks during National Signing Day press conference in Clemson, S.C. Wednesday, February 2, 2022.Clemson National Signing Day Feb 2 /

The last two years haven’t been overly prosperous for the Tigers on the recruiting trail.

Clemson Nation celebrated the verbal commitment of quarterback Christopher Vizzina on April 12th. The next day, Clemson football got their 2nd commitment in two days when tight end Reid Mikeska announced that he would be attending Clemson. This was a welcome change for Clemson fans. The last two years haven’t been overly prosperous for the Tigers on the recruiting trail. Five recruits had verbally committed to Clemson, only to decommit before their official signing day. Finally, it seemed the Tigers were headed in the right direction for the 2023 class.

That positive momentum did not last. On Thursday, Mikeska announced that he would be the sixth recruit in the last two years to decommit from the Tigers after verbally committing. Those that follow recruiting closely indicate that Mikeska, who is from Texas, was officially offered a scholarship by Oklahoma after he committed to Clemson. The appeal of a nationally recognized program that close to home was apparently too strong. Mikeska had been officially offered by LSU and Alabama, but we have no idea how seriously those programs pursued him. For whatever reason, Oklahoma moved the needle.

It has been well-documented that Clemson does not want verbally committed recruits to visit other schools, so Mikeska elected to withdraw his commitment to Clemson so he can visit Norman, as well as a handful of other schools.

Clemson still has verbal commitments from Vizzina and defensive end David Ojiegbe (pronounced oh-ZHEB-way), both of whom are important members of the 2023 class. Clemson’s first verbal commitment for the class – wide receiver Nathaniel Joseph – is also being strongly pursued by other schools, primarily Miami. They are Joseph’s hometown program, so like Mikeska, the appeal of staying close to home is something Joseph must contemplate.

Clemson fans are understandably frustrated

I understand the frustration of many Clemson fans right now. Most of us would prefer that these young men, usually 17-18 years old, would always wait until every stone has been unturned and every possible contingency has been explored before announcing to a fan base that they have chosen their school. As fans, it can be depressing for a player to decommit after we have gotten excited that they verbally committed. This may be particularly disappointing to Clemson fans since Coach Swinney’s policy is that when a recruit commits, that means their recruitment by other schools is over. A Clemson commit is supposed to decline meetings with other coaches and refrain from visiting other schools. Our understanding as fans is that Clemson makes these terms clear to recruits before they commit to Clemson. Since Clemson had a good track record avoiding decommitments before signing day, we became accustomed to considering a verbal commit for Clemson to be about as solid as they come.

While I understand the frustration, I ask Clemson fans to consider the circumstances surrounding these two recruitments before you rush to judgement. Mikeska had not received a scholarship offer from Oklahoma at the time that he decided to commit to Clemson. We can preach that he should have been patient and waited if an OU offer was what he wanted, but the reality is that we don’t know what kind of signals he was receiving from OU or any other school for that matter. No school is allowed to speak publicly about the recruitment of a player until they sign their letter of intent, accept financial aid or enroll.

If Mikeska thought he might get an offer from a school he preferred over Clemson, then he should have waited. The thing is that I don’t know that he had any idea OU would offer. As far as I know, OU might have slow played him. I haven’t seen any chatter from insiders that really sheds any light, so I am giving Mikeska the benefit of the doubt that this wasn’t intentional – he genuinely thought he knew his options and thought Clemson was where he wanted to be. When OU offered, it made him realize he had jumped to conclusions and made a mistake, and he still wanted to make more visits. I’m bummed that it likely won’t work out for Clemson and Mikeska, but I wish him well. No hard feelings.

The same goes for Joseph if it is his destiny to decommit. He did give Clemson his verbal early in the process, but he may have been in a similar position: he thought he knew the market, and Clemson was his first choice. Remember, when Joseph verbally committed to Clemson in September 2021, Miami had a different coaching staff in place than they do now. A lot of things have changed for the Hurricanes in the last five months, both on and off the field. Again, we can stand on our pedestal and criticize a young man still learning to be an adult for rushing to judgement, or we can allow some grace. I hope Joseph remains committed to Clemson, but if he doesn’t, I also wish him well because I see there are reasons behind the change.

I also fully understand that part of the frustration for fans in Joseph’s case comes from the off-the-field influence of NIL. If Miami boosters are using NIL to induce recruits to select the Hurricanes, then they fully deserve to be criticized and sanctioned. There are a lot of differing opinions on NIL, but I put the blame the boosters, not the kids.

Another thing to consider here is what I mentioned earlier: coaches can’t comment on recruits until they sign on the dotted line and fax it in. For all we know, Clemson may have sensed that Mikeska was rushing things. Its very possible they didn’t consider Mikeska a ‘solid’ commit. They might have thought the same thing about Joseph, understanding that his commitment came in so early that it might not stick. It is entirely possible that these two verbal commitments didn’t change their big picture recruiting strategy for 2023 at all.

That is, of course, just speculation, but Coach Swinney and his staff didn’t just start recruiting yesterday. They have a lot of experience, so I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes insiders let us know when the staff is caught by surprise, but typically we can expect that they are a few steps ahead of us. Their experience reading the reactions of teenagers being tugged all over the place by parents, high school coaches, handlers and other schools probably gives them a sixth sense on the subject. I doubt that they have been surprised by much at all with the Mikeska and Joseph recruitments.

I think the coaches are keeping their heads on right, and I think fans should too. It is easy to be irritated and vent on social media, to be snarky and condescending towards recruits and their families because they dared to make us care, and then spurned us for other opportunities. Fans of all NCAA teams need to keep their expectations and emotions in check, and Tiger Nation is not an exception to the rule. Fans need to remain grounded and understand there is an ebb and flow we can’t even perceive.

Dabo understands the ebb and flow, despite the lunatic fringe that thrashes him over every recruiting battle that doesn’t trend towards Clemson. Coach didn’t create his recruiting strategy the day he got the job in 2009. The strategy has evolved over the years as he learned from his mistakes and gained a better understanding of his program’s place in the world of recruiting. As Clemson found more success on the field, Swinney recognized that his program’s clout in recruiting had increased, and he used that to his advantage. He began dissuading recruits from official visits in the summer, instead making them wait to use them during the season when they could see a home game in person and get the full experience of being in Death Valley with a packed house. He began restricting scholarship offers and official visit opportunities until the recruit & their family had visited Clemson on their own dime. This showed the staff that the recruit was serious about the opportunity to play at Clemson – they had skin in the game – and it helped weed out the guys who just wanted an expenses paid trip and the ability to post a Clemson offer on social media. This strategy worked for a time. It made the recruits want the Clemson offer even more. Clemson threw a very small net compared to other programs, choosing to make their offers exclusive, showing players they were ‘committing’ to them the way they asked them to commit to the Tigers.

Clemson was perceived as a program on the rise, and then a program at the top, and the staff capitalized on that. Things have changed in the past three years. Some of it came from the shifting of the recruiting season forward on the calendar because of the Early Signing Period. Some of it had to do with restrictions on hosting or visiting recruits in person due to the COVID pandemic. Some of it had to do with Clemson’s performance on the field. While the Tigers are still respected as a quality program, they are perceived by many as a program in decline. The woes of ACC football have also hurt the Tigers. These factors, as well as departures of key staff members, have given recruits reason to pause. Clemson does not carry the same clout in recruiting as they did in 2018 after their 44-16 victory over Alabama in the National Championship.

Coach Swinney has recognized the way these factors have impacted his program, and he has started shifting his recruiting philosophy to adapt. Clemson has moved away from their policy of not allowing summer official visits. This summer they are hosting several key recruits for officials on the weekend of June 3rd, especially on the defensive side. Dabo recognized that many recruits would like to commit before their senior season begins. Clemson was once able to convince recruits to wait and visit during a game, but the wind is blowing a different direction now. Dabo has seen this and reacted. The experiences of the COVID shutdown have made it clear there are other ways to assess recruits than having them visit in person on their own dime. Since Clemson recruits nationally, it can be expensive for families to make a trip out of their own pocket. Not every family can afford it, especially when other schools are willing to cover the costs.

One philosophy that we have not seen change yet is the rule that a player must decommit if they decide they want to visit and learn about other schools. I think it makes sense for Clemson to consider a change to this philosophy as well, at the very least when the situation includes extenuating circumstances like the Mikeska and Joseph recruitments. I am certain there are times when a recruit isn’t taking their commitment seriously and just want to kick around the country jumping on flights and being wined & dined (figuratively). I think the staff would be justified to tell those kids they need to decommit.

On the other hand, I think there are times when it could benefit the program to allow some kids leeway to visit other schools while still verbally committed to Clemson. What if Mikeska visits Norman and doesn’t gel with the coaches? What if his parents don’t like the school? He might realize that Clemson is where he wants to be after all. Sure, if he decommits he can recommit later, but why create a negative situation with the recruit & family when it isn’t necessary? Forcing a recruit to decommit probably comes across as a power play by the school; it practically guarantees the recruit will be turned off. I don’t think there is much face to be saved by forcing a de-commitment versus the recruit decommitting after a visit to another school. It’s just window dressing – everyone knows what really happened.

Ultimately, it’s the staff’s call. Maybe they will make this adjustment, maybe they won’t. Maybe they have been discussing it for a while now. This may surprise you, but they don’t actually consult me on such things, which is probably a smart choice on their part.

I would love to know all the juicy details of these recruitments, but I understand I am not entitled to them. I appreciate all the insiders who feed my curiosity with the tidbits of information they can gather, but the reality is that some things, be them the business of the Clemson staff or the business of an 17–18-year-old recruit, are none of my business, and it would be presumptive of me to negatively judge when I don’t know exactly what is going on.

In the same light, I understand how much energy the fanbase puts into the recruiting process, but they aren’t entitled to those details either. If you are like me, I recommend you consider making the investment with one of the insider websites to satiate some of your recruiting appetite. Just don’t be one of ‘those fans’ on their message boards ripping a teenager for being indecisive, or the trashing the staff for having the audacity to think they know recruiting better than keyboard warriors. Just because everyone is entitled to speak their opinion doesn’t mean everyone should.

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