CLEMSON — If it’s possible to come in second place for the consensus best overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2016 and still have a fist-pumping National Signing Day, Clemson found a way.
The Tigers’ eleventh-hour efforts to get defensive tackle Rashan Gary went unrewarded when Gary signed with Michigan on Wednesday.
Yet hardly a tear was shed in Clemson as the Tigers put together the nation’s fourth-best recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) for the second consecutive year.
“Anytime we get a kid on campus, and get him in front of our people, get him in front of (head coach) Dabo Swinney,” said rookie recruiting coordinator Brandon Streeter, “it’s somewhat of an easy sell.”
Clemson’s recruiting class of 23 signees, including seven already enrolled in spring semester courses, is strong on defense, led by three five-star prospects — defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebackers Tre Lamar and Rahshaun Smith — who will take part in spring practices.
Clemson’s most pleasant surprise Wednesday also came on defense: four-star cornerback Trayvon Mullen was leaning toward LSU and Florida State but picked Clemson, which stumbled upon a sudden need for defensive backs.
The Tigers’ recruiters had to scramble for secondary prospects after safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and nickel back Travis Blanks all decided to turn pro within the past two months.
“DB wasn’t a need for us coming into this season — we didn’t have one senior on our entire roster in the secondary,” Swinney said. “It’s hard to go recruit when you don’t have scholarships for guys.”
Blanks declared in early December. Kearse told Swinney he was leaving days before Clemson lost to Alabama in the national championship, while Green and Alexander made their decisions within 48 hours after the game.
This class of defensive backs includes Mullen, Isaiah Simmons, Nolan Turner and Brian Dawkins Jr.
“We had to hit the ground running with just a couple weeks to go get it done in January,” Swinney said. “We had to say, ‘Who’s the best guys out there?’ and make some calls. People were interested in coming to see Clemson. That’s a credit to the strength of our brand. Signing some of these DBs was huge for us.”
Swinney identified the team’s top needs this offseason as offensive line, linebacker and wide receiver. The Tigers signed four offensive linemen, three linebackers and three receivers.
In quarterback Zedrick Cooper, running back Tavien Feaster and tight end J.C. Chalk, Swinney proclaimed, “We got our No. 1 draft picks at quarterback, running back and tight end.”
Feaster, the 2015 South Carolina Mr. Football out of Spartanburg High School, will require shoulder surgery soon.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever see another guy like C.J. Spiller, but he’s about as close to C.J. Spiller of any (recruit) I’ve seen,” Swinney said of Feaster. “This guy is special. Big-time talent, incredibly explosive.”
Clemson hosted its Signing Day party Wednesday morning in the WestZone complex, replete with its early enrollees: Lawrence, Smith, Lamar, defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, defensive end LaSamuel Davis and offensive linemen Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum.
“Clemson’s just a special place,” Lamar said during the party. “Special people here, special relationships you build with players and coaches. It’s just different than when you go anywhere else, and I knew that from the first visit. Committing here was the best decision I ever made.”
The team’s last player to sign Wednesday was Fort Dorchester offensive lineman John Simpson, giving the Tigers a total of 10 four-star signees.
Offensive lineman Cade Stewart will grayshirt, joining the roster in the spring of 2017, unless transfers or academic ineligibility opens a scholarship spot for him by the fall.
Clemson secured the state’s No. 1 (Feaster), No. 2 (Pinckney) and No. 5 (Simpson) overall prospects, according to Rivals.com.
Swinney said the coaching staff will take a short break for a skiing vacation, though work has already begun on the class of 2017. Spring practices begin Feb. 29, and the spring game will be April 9 at Memorial Stadium.
“Can’t wait to start charging right back up the mountain,” Swinney said.
With Gary going elsewhere, the Tigers still have solid depth at defensive tackle with senior Carlos Watkins, junior Scott Pagano, sophomore Christian Wilkins, redshirt freshman Albert Huggins and its top 2016 signee in Lawrence.
Clemson’s recruiting class:
Tremayne Anchrum OL 6-3 270 Powder Springs, Ga.
J.C. Chalk TE 6-3 221 Argyle, Texas
T.J. Chase WR 6-2 182 Plant City, Fla.
Zerrick Cooper QB 6-2 203 Jonesboro, Ga.
LaSamuel Davis DE 6-4 215 Bamberg-Ehrhardt
Brian Dawkins CB 5-7 190 Fork Union, Va.
Tavien Feaster RB 5-11 192 Spartanburg
Xavier Kelly DE 6-4 257 Wichita, Kan.
Tre Lamar LB 6-3 240 Roswell, Ga.
Dexter Lawrence DT 6-4 340 Wake Forest, N.C.
Trayvon Mullen CB 6-2 175 Coconut Creek, Fla.
Diondre Overton WR 6-5 194 Greensboro, N.C.
Nyles Pinckney DT 6-3 290 Whale Branch
Sean Pollard OL 6-5 295 Southern Pines, N.C.
Cornell Powell WR 6-1 190 Greenville, N.C.
Chandler Reeves OL 6-6 255 McDonough, Ga.
Isaiah Simmons S 6-3 212 Olathe, Kan.
John Simpson OL 6-4 288 Fort Dorchester
James Skalski LB 6-0 230 Newnan, Ga.
Rahshaun Smith LB 6-2 226 Bradenton, Fla.
Cade Stewart OL 6-4 280 Daniel
Nolan Turner DB 6-2 190 Vestavia Hills, Ala.
K’Von Wallace S 6-1 180 Highland Springs, Va.