Updated December 19, 2020 - 9:57 am
When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney gets an opportunity to sit on his couch and watch NFL games on Sundays, he does his best to check in on as many of his former players as possible.
That means he watches a whole lot of Raiders games, though he gets updates on one particular player whether he watches the game or not.
“Hunter Renfrow was my son’s roommate, so I always get a weekly update on him no matter what,” Swinney said by phone. “But I love all of those guys.”
There are now six Tigers on the Raiders’ roster, with the five drafted over the last two years joined by newly signed Vic Beasley.
Swinney’s success in recruiting and developing elite talent has resulted in placing players on 20 of the 32 teams in the league. But no team has relied on that pipeline more in building a foundation than the Raiders.
In the previous 25 years, the Raiders had selected just one player from the school, wide receiver Jacoby Ford in 2010.
“It’s super cool that Mayock and (coach Jon Gruden) have recognized our program as one they like to really evaluate players from,” Swinney said. “That’s just a great compliment to the people in our organization, how we do things, how we evaluate in the recruiting process, and how we develop young men. Then certainly the type of culture that we have here, I just think that’s one of the ultimate compliments that you can get.”
The Clemson pedigree
There are several reasons for NFL talent evaluators and roster builders to be intrigued by Clemson players. The success they have had at the highest levels of college football shows the talent present in the program. It also prepares players to compete at the next level.
That goes to the core of Mayock’s vision of building the Raiders.
“We wanted guys who would come in and just compete their tails off,” he said during training camp. “At the core of a passion for the game has to be a love of competition. Guys that don’t shrink from the moment. That’s probably why you’ve seen some of the guys we draft come from big schools, used to playing in big games where we have an opportunity to watch them compete in that type of atmosphere.”
Swinney, who has amassed a 139–32 record at Clemson, with two national titles and six ACC crowns as it headed into Saturday’s ACC championship game against Notre Dame, believes the appeal of players from his program extends off the field.
Like all NFL teams, Swinney said the Raiders have a lot of good players. But, he said, “if you talk about good people who understand winning and what it takes to win that are also good players, that pool gets a little smaller.”
Those players, Swinney said “know what winning looks like. They know what competition looks like. So I think that from the Raiders’ standpoint, that’s what they look at.”
The pipeline began with Renfrow, cornerback Trayvon Mullen and defensive end Clelin Ferrell in the 2019 draft.
Guard John Simpson and linebacker Tanner Muse followed in the 2020 draft, with Beasley signing last month after he was waived by Tennessee.
They bring a camaraderie and a certain level of school spirit with them, and that love of competition Mayock talked about is always present.
When Beasley signed last month, one of the first things Ferrell reminded him of was that he could have broken several of Beasley’s school records had he returned to Clemson for his senior season.
Ferrell admitted he has always looked up to Beasley and hopes they are bringing some of what Swinney has instilled in their college program to Las Vegas.
“I just feel like we bring that winning mindset,” Ferrell said of the Clemson players. “That’s the culture we’re trying to create here. People could see that with the first wave of guys last year, and you can see the strides we’ve made this year with the changing of the culture here in our first year in Las Vegas. We know how to win, we know how to handle our business, and we’re good players at the same time.”
It’s not an ideal situation for everyone.
Star tight end Darren Waller played at Georgia Tech, an ACC rival of Clemson. He laughed about some of the ribbing he has received from the former Tigers.
“I get grief from those guys just because we haven’t fared well against Clemson recently, so I’m always the butt of jokes on that front,” he said. “ But they’re all good guys and good people that come from a winning pedigree. So they know how to play the game and handle themselves. Moments never seem too big for them.”
The Clemson guys certainly aren’t shy about discussing their collegiate pride. Back when locker rooms were open to the media, it was a common occurrence to hear Renfrow, Ferrell and Mullen trash-talking guys from other schools or citing Swinney when answering a question.
More to come
It’s all part of what the coach hoped to build when taking over at Clemson more than a decade ago.
“When I hear about that kind of pride, I’d say it’s mission accomplished,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about. We develop leadership. We develop the man, and hopefully we can win games along the way.”
Clemson, Swinney said, is not an easy place to be a football player. “It’s not for everybody … but as they get away from here, they realize what they were exposed to and how fortunate they were to have the experience and the resources and the people here.”
They also have championship experience off the field, which should come in handy as the Raiders make a push for the playoffs this year and beyond.
Gruden is happy to have some of the Clemson players forming the foundation of his franchise.
“Dabo Swinney and some of those coaches there, they do a great job of mentoring these players to come in here with a good work ethic, big upside and the ability to learn,” he said. “And they can take criticism, they are mentally tough kids.
“We’ll keep our doors open for more Tigers in the future.”