CLEMSON — Dan Benish promises nobody forced his nephew to follow his trail from north Georgia to Clemson.
“It was always up to him, and I would have been glad wherever he went,” Benish said. “I just wanted him to be happy.”
But, added the All-Atlantic Coast Conference defensive tackle for Clemson’s 1981 championship team: “I’m sure there’s a brainwashing that took place from the time he was little.”
Mitch Hyatt was 7 years old when Uncle Dan first brought him to Death Valley, the place that helped launch Benish to a pro career highlighted by a Super Bowl ring with the 1987 Washington Redskins.
A decade later, the nation’s consensus No. 1 offensive tackle prospect calmly and decisively made up his mind to play at Clemson.
Hyatt enrolled in classes in January, and on Wednesday, two days short of his 18th birthday, he will officially sign his national letter of intent as a centerpiece of the Tigers’ recruiting class.
“When he had a chance to go out and look at other schools, he’d already seen Clemson from the inside out,” Benish said. “Everything was being compared to Clemson, and in his mind, nothing compared to the way he felt when he was at Clemson.”
Hyatt’s arrival is not a moment too soon. The Tigers hope the true freshman will be ready to play Sept. 5 when Clemson plays Wofford in the season opener.
The abundance of riches falling in Duvall Braxton’s lap was every football coach’s dream.
Brought in four years ago to guide the North Gwinnett (Suwanee, Ga.) offensive line, Braxton’s first starting tackles were DeVondre Seymour and Alex Stoehr. Seymour is committed to Georgia following a two-year junior college stint, and Stoehr is Georgia State’s starting right guard.
Going into 2012, Braxton’s second year, Seymour and Stoehr were the incumbents and entering their senior seasons.
“Those were two of the top tackles in the county,” Braxton recalled. “And somebody was getting bumped. Mitch was gonna start. There was never any doubt.”
Hyatt was a rising sophomore. Stoehr moved to guard, and Hyatt became the most hyped left tackle recruit in head coach Bob Sphire’s nine years at North Gwinnett, no small task.
The Bulldogs have also churned out Ja’Wuan James, who attended Tennessee and was drafted No. 19 overall by the Miami Dolphins in last year’s NFL draft, and Austin Shepherd, Alabama’s two-year starter at right tackle.
“We’ve been blessed to have some really good ones,” Sphire said. “Mitch may be a little bit of a mixture between Ja’Wuan and Austin. Ja’Wuan was extremely athletic, Austin was more of a bloody-your-nose guy, and Mitch really has got characteristics of both those guys.”
Skillfully speaking, Braxton raves over Hyatt’s combination of hand placement, footwork and center of gravity.
“He’s a very tenacious player. If you look at his tape, he’ll be 15-20 yards downfield,” Braxton said. “He’s not going to stop until the guy’s on his back or the ref blows the whistle. There’s no, ‘I did my job so I’ll get out of the way and watch the play’ — he doesn’t do that.
“There’s not a lot to critique in a bad way about him as an offensive lineman as far as his technique. I would say the knock is he hasn’t put on more weight faster.”
Clemson lists Hyatt at 6-6, 270 pounds. Isaiah Battle, the Tigers’ incumbent left tackle, isn’t exactly oversized at 290 pounds, but his predecessor Brandon Thomas was 315 pounds.
So Hyatt has seven months to pack on an appreciable amount of quality girth. Every offensive lineman’s top priority at the dawn of his college career is being physically ready, and even Hyatt faces those questions.
“The biggest issue we had with him as his career went along is he stayed at that 270-pound range,” said Rivals.com Southeast recruiting analyst Woody Wommack. “When you talk about a true tackle, ideally for an elite guy you want him close to 300 pounds.
“I think Mitch has the frame to add that kind of weight; being on campus and not playing basketball like he normally does in the offseason, I imagine that will be priority one is bulking him up so he can play early.”
Those in Hyatt’s corner agree with Wommack’s assessment — “Mitch can hold 300 pounds and not look fat,” Braxton said — and are confident in Hyatt’s early enrollment. There’s the advantage of admitting incoming recruits in January to get a headstart at the training table and in the weight room.
“He’s not going to have to drop 25 or 30 pounds to play. It’s easier to put weight on someone than to get him to lose it,” Benish said. “The sky’s the limit for Mitch.”
That first year when Hyatt was a sophomore starting at tackle for the varsity, he lined up against then-senior Robert Nkemdiche, the eventual blue-chip defensive end at Mississippi, and the pair played, in Wommack’s words, “to a draw.” Nkemdiche was one of many elite opponents in talent-laden Georgia.
Every day in high school, Hyatt had to deal with defensive teammates like Donte Sawyer, South Carolina’s prized defensive end recruit, and Georgia Tech linebacker commit Anree Saint-Amour.
“So the shock factor of going to college is not like some kid who’s coming out of a setting where he may have the ability but he hasn’t been exposed to that caliber of competition,” Sphire said. “Will there still be a learning curve? Absolutely. But I don’t think he’ll be in over his head from Day 1 at all.”
Provided Hyatt puts on the necessary weight, Clemson coaches not only would be excited to see what they’ve got in a true freshman offensive lineman, they might not have a choice.
Hyatt and fellow classmate Jake Fruhmorgen offer hope for the future of a beleaguered offensive line that often has been tagged the weak link of Clemson’s high-tempo offense.
Benish, who coaches youth football in north Georgia on Saturdays but keeps up with his Tigers as much as possible, will watch with greater interest than ever before.
“The whole group of young men they have coming in, they’re absolutely building something,” Benish said. “Even if they don’t get to play, they’re going to push the guys who are there to make them that much better. I don’t want to dog the line that’s been there, they’ve been working hard, but this is going to take them to that next level.”