Clemson Football might have dodged a problem with transfer offensive line candidates

The Tigers are getting heat for taking 3-star high school prospects instead of 3-star transfers on the offensive line, but all of the four transfer candidates turned out to be wishy-washy in some way, shape or form.

The Clemson Football Tigers prepare to face the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2023 Gator Bowl.
The Clemson Football Tigers prepare to face the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2023 Gator Bowl. / ALEX HICKS JR./STAFF / USA TODAY NETWORK

Clemson Football ended up with four offensive line prospects in the Class of 2024.

This is somewhat surprising, for a handful of reasons. First, the Tigers had a rough time recruiting to the offensive line this cycle. It appears to be one of the reasons that Thomas Austin was dismissed recently.

Second, it isn’t easy for most coaches to step into a new position in early December and manage to close the deal with high school prospects just a few weeks later. Matt Luke didn’t have much time to operate.

Last, it appeared the Tigers had resolved to add to their offensive line group via the transfer portal. At the beginning of the month, it seemed like Ronan O’Connell might be the only high school offensive line addition.

Clemson did offer a local legacy prospect, Watson Young, right as Luke was coming on board, and he committed soon after. Then recruiting what the Tigers wanted from the portal turned out to be more of a challenge than the staff thought.

It led to Luke taking his best shot with two more prospects. Elyjah Thurmon had been recruited heavily by Austin, but Luke stepped in and closed that deal.

He also recruited Mason Wade to flip from Duke following their coaching change from Mike Elko to Manny Diaz.

Regarding the offensive line specifically:

"”We needed guys that could play tackle and have some position flexibility – a lot like (former Clemson OL) Jordan McFadden brought to us, a lot like (redshirt freshman OL) Collin Sadler brings to us, a lot like (redshirt sophomore OL) Tristan Leigh brings to us – some versatility in their game. And Elyjah Thurmon and Mason Wade, they bring that.”"

Dabo Swinney

As I mused recently, Dabo Swinney will always tell you a recruiting haul is a home run. Not everyone is high on Clemson following this class, however. There is a reality: all four offensive line recruits are 3-star prospects.

247Sports Andrew Ivins considers Clemson a program trending down following the opening day of the Early Signing Period. He called out the Tigers for not utilizing the portal overall but specified the offensive line group.

"“At this point, we’ve accepted Clemson is just not going to embrace the NCAA Transfer Portal outside of a halfhearted approach — it is only looking for backup offensive linemen in the portal this year and would prefer ones with two to three years of eligibility remaining.”"

Andrew Ivins

I took the line of 'two to three years of eligibility remaining' to be a criticism that they should have just gone after the one and dones.

He isn’t alone. There are plenty of people who have either mocked Clemson’s offensive line class or are lamenting that the Tigers settled for 3-star offensive prospects from the high school ranks instead of making more effort to bring in one of the four portal linemen they offered.

I'm not being fair if I don't acknowledge that Clemson's performance on the field the past three seasons backs up the portal argument, and the only way Swinney and his staff can prove their approach is a valid one is to turn things around on the field, which they have yet to accomplish.

I also criticized Swinney and the staff for their misses in the portal, questioning if they knew how to recruit from the portal. I stand by this criticism, by the way. I don't think they truly knew what to expect, though I would guess the experience has further soured them to the portal rather than given them insight on how to do it different next time.

My first rebuttal is a point I made broadly about Clemson’s entire Class of 2024: don’t judge a book by its cover. In this case, don’t judge a group of prospects by their class rank and individual star ratings. Sometimes they are correct. Sometimes they are overrated. Sometimes they are underrated.

My second rebuttal is that the players Clemson recruited out of the portal were risks to begin with. I did not realize that in foresight, but it has been made clear in hindsight.

Here are the four players we know of that were involved to some extent with Clemson from the portal:

Alan Herron

  • Pro: two years of eligibility remaining, grew up in Georgia, seemed like a good fit
  • Con: only a 3-star transfer per 247, ended up being a pay-for-play transfer, flipped from Penn State to Maryland on Signing Day.

Keylan Rutledge

  • Pro: just like Herron, two years of eligibility remaining, grew up in Georgia, seemed like a good fit, but also had played for Rick Stockstill, who has close Clemson ties
  • Con: only a 3-star transfer per 247, ultimately decided not to visit Clemson after he was in a car crash on his way to a visit, ie impressionable.

Austin Blaske

  • Pro: was a 4-star prospect out of high school, played for Luke at Georgia
  • Con: only 3-star transfer per 247, never found a starting role with the Bulldogs, apparently didn’t want to wait on Clemson and committed to UNC quickly

Addison Nichols

  • Pro: Was a 4-star prospect in the Composite out of high school; had three seasons of eligibility remaining.
  • Con: you guessed it: 3-star transfer. Never found a starting role at Tennessee until the final game against Vanderbilt when the regular starter was injured, probably wouldn’t be starting for the Vols next season as a third-year player.

When it was all said and done, none of the players Clemson talked to in the portal had a higher star rating than 3 stars, yet if we are to believe Swinney at face-value, they all wanted to be starters at a Power program.

To put further emphasis on the big picture, the only one ranked in the 247 Top 25 of offensive linemen in the portal was Nichols, who was 11th, and as we already pointed out, he was still only a 3-star transfer.

There were only six 4-star offensive linemen who had entered the portal as of Friday afternoon.

“Why didn’t Clemson go after those six players?” The cream of the crop wants the dinero. Anyone who understands Clemson’s ethical position on offering NIL as part of the recruitment process knows Clemson wasn’t going to land those players.

Chase Bisontis (#2 overall lineman in the portal) announced on X that Clemson did reach out to him. That conversation apparently ended quickly, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that NIL was a big part of his recruitment.

All of these points do have counter-arguments, but the encompassing point is that you can’t make a great case that bringing in portal players on the offensive line was going to immediately yield benefits that made it the obvious right move. Of the four targets, they either hadn’t lived up to expectations so far or they hadn’t played FBS Power football.

I roll my eyes at Swinney sometimes too - he can be corny - but when he points out that sometimes players are in the portal for a reason, he isn’t wrong. Bluntly, all of the four candidates turned out to be wishy-washy in some way, shape or form.