CLEMSON — It was as Bad News Bears as it gets in college football.
Coaches coaxing players to gamble on uncertainty. A rag-tag recruiting class about half the normal size, committing to a wiry, excitable leader who’d been promoted from interim to head coach.
Just one story to tell of the bunch is Clemson linebacker Quandon Christian, whose only other offer in the winter of 2009 was to N.C. State. Christian’s hometown of Lake View, S.C., has fewer than 800 people, and Christian remembers Dabo Swinney taking a chance on the small-town defender.
Then again, that risk went both ways. For Christian. For quarterback Tajh Boyd. For left tackle Brandon Thomas. For linebacker Spencer Shuey. For the boys known as a Dandy Dozen.
“It was a small class, and all the guys have good relationships with each other,” Christian said. “We didn’t really know what Coach Swinney was bringing to the table, but we had faith in him and he’s gotten the job done so far.”
That impact wasn’t immediate. Most of those signees from Swinney’s first full class redshirted a 9-5 season in 2009, then as freshmen slogged through a 6-7 campaign in 2010.
In week three of the 2011 season — Boyd’s first full year as starting quarterback — the Tigers knocked off defending national champion Auburn, 38-24, in Death Valley.
The next week, Clemson was ranked No. 21 in the country. That was 42 weeks of college football ago. Clemson hasn’t left the top 25 since — one of seven streaks in the country that long, and the second-best streak in school history.
“(They) transformed Clemson. Changed the culture at Clemson,” Swinney said, reflecting on this memorable class.
“They set the standard, and made it realistic to achieve that standard. Winners.”
With a 36-14 record and three games in hand, this four-year group has matched last year’s batch to rack up the most victories for a Clemson class in 22 years. It can break the mark by beating The Citadel Saturday at noon on Senior Day.
“You play, and then you play, and then you look up and then it’s like, wow, this is my last game here in Death Valley,” Thomas said. “It’s kind of a shock, and it’s kind of sad, but it’s exciting at the same time.”
Per Rivals.com team ratings, Clemson had a top-20 class for eight out of nine Februarys: 2005 through 2008, and 2010 through 2013. The four final years with Tommy Bowden, and Swinney’s next four years after his inaugural effort.
The Boyd-headlined class was rated No. 37 in the country, more for its lack of numbers than talent. Because there was talent.
“This group in particular came here at a time when there was total change and no guarantees and took a leap of faith in me as their head coach and in Clemson,” Swinney said. “Man, what a journey it’s been. They’ve been the bricks and mortar laying the foundation for sustained success.”
Defensive end Malliciah Goodman, linebacker Corico Wright and safety Jonathan Meeks finished in four years. But along with Boyd, Christian, Shuey and Thomas from the Dandy Dozen, redshirts were accepted by running back Roderick McDowell, lineman Tyler Shatley and fullback Darrell Smith.
“Every group is hard to say goodbye to, but the fact that they all came here as my first signing class in February of ‘09, that’s pretty special to me,” Swinney said. “To see them leaving here as graduates, I’m very proud of what they’ve done.”
This senior class is additionally fortified by cornerback Darius Robinson — the squad’s only fourth-year scholarship senior — and kicker Chandler Catanzaro and long snapper Phillip Fajgenbaum, former walk-ons now on scholarship.
“It’s been great growing up with these guys,” Robinson said. “We were here when we were 6-7, so we understand where we came from. It’s a great feeling seeing the progress the whole program has made.”
Swinney always makes a point to ensure the seniors indulge themselves as the days wind down on their college careers — whether their future includes an NFL career or a 9-to-5 desk job.
“I guess all good things come to an end at some point,” Boyd said. “It’s all bittersweet for me; I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play at the next level, looking forward to seeing what life presents. But at the same time, being here, at the moment, it’s all you know. It’s kind of one of those deals where it’s like, whoa, what happens from here? It becomes a job. This is your livelihood.
“It’s all about enjoying yourself, enjoying this last month of football. It’s kind of crazy to look at it from that angle, but we’ve got to maximize the opportunities that we have.”
Boyd won’t shed tears. At least, that’s what he told Christian.
“(Tajh) asked me if I’m going to cry. I was like, nah. I think he’s going to cry, he wanted me to cry with him or something,” Christian said.
“It’s tough. Clemson’s been good to me.”