Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney brings his team to the Valley for the second time in four years with a nationwide vision for his record-breaking program.
The Tigers (13-0) enter Saturday’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against fellow unbeaten program, Ohio State, with the nation’s longest winning streak, at 26 games.
Ask Swinney what’s exciting, and you’ll hear a soliloquy or two about a host of topics, including the program’s growing reach on the recruiting trail.
The longtime Clemson head coach described the program’s recruiting vision as not being region specific or state specific, but as an ebbing tour de force that spans the coasts looking for the right type of football players.
“We don’t really invest a lot of [recruiting]resources in Arizona, because we go wherever,” Swinney says. “We talk about building it inside, out, and we’re going to go after Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina and Virginia and Maryland, Florida, Alabama, that’s kind of our area if you will. But, what has happened is, that we just signed a pretty good quarterback out of California, and we weren’t recruiting him.
“His coach tells the story, I think he had a million offers as a sophomore or something like that, and coach was talking to him about whether there was a school back east that he liked, and he said, ‘Yeah, Clemson.’
Swinney said the program’s reach speaks to the growth that, as he called it, ‘little old Clemson,’ has undertaken since he became the head coach in 2008, with upcoming recruits from all over wanting to join his team.
“He’s 16 at that point, and for the last nine years he’s grown up watching little old Clemson,” Swinney says of incoming quarterback, D.J. Uiagalelei, who will joining the Tigers in 2020. “And so, we get a lot of that, with these kids that have grown up watching us and that are interested. So, his coach reached out to us, and coach [Brandon] Streeter said, ‘Wow, he’s pretty good.’
And so, we don’t really say, ‘OK, let’s go recruit all of California or Arizona or whatnot.’ But we do keep track of the best players and reach out, but what’s happened is a lot of these kids have reciprocated.”
Streeter, who has served as quarterbacks coach under Swinney for five seasons, said the recruiting effort that Swinney’s undertaken and the growing interest in the Tigers operation among west coast recruits.
“Well it’s very neat, and we just have to be careful on making sure that they’re the right fit for our program,” Streeter said. “Being that far away, you have to make sure that that’s the case. So, we want to make sure that they come to campus and show how interested they are.
They come to campus a couple of times, we get to be around them, and we can tell if they’re a fit for our program.”
The Tigers’ lone west coast player this year is freshman wideout Joseph Ngata, who grew up in Folsom, California.
Ngata, who finished the year with 229 receiving yards and three touchdowns, said he was drawn to play for the Tigers, in large part because of Swinney’s upbeat demeanor.
“His honesty and the transparency of the program really made me want to play for the program,” Ngata says. “I was watching their first national championship in 2016, and it actually was on my birthday, so it was something that was in the back of my head ever since.”
The freshman is thrilled to have the chance to play somewhat close to home, with 13 friends and family members in attendance at Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s nice, it’s good to give my parents and my family a chance to watch me play, and it’s not going to be too much money, so I’m really excited about that,” Ngata says. “It’s going to be nice for them to support me, and I just get a different motivation when my parents come to my games, so I’m pretty excited.”
Swinney is thrilled to have the opportunity to play in the College Football Playoffs for the fifth straight year, including their second trip to the Fiesta Bowl in that span.
Their previous trip, in 2016, saw the Tigers shut out the Buckeyes, 31-0 in another Fiesta Bowl semifinal, in the first leg of what would be the team’s first national title since 1981.
Swinney believes this year’s contest will be just as riveting as their previous clash with Ohio State, with the Buckeyes featuring a star-studded roster that includes Heisman Trophy finalists, in sophomore quarterback Justin Fields and junior defensive end Chase Young.
He expects the matchup of Clemson’s stout offensive line, which protects sophomore gunslinger Trevor Lawrence, against Ohio State’s star-studded defensive line to be a thrill for fans of all persuasions.
“It’s must-see TV, because we’re pretty good on the offensive line. They get a lot of sacks, we don’t give up many,” Swinney says. “They get a lot of tackles for loss; we don’t give up many. So, it’s a great matchup.”
Another part of Clemson’s ongoing success has been the continuity among Swinney’s staff, with offensive coordinator Jeff Scott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables serving in their roles since 2008 and 2012, respectively.
Streeter believes that level of continuity, which will take a bit of a hit when Scott leaves to be the head coach at the University of South Florida in the offseason, comes from the small town feel that Clemson provides.
“Obviously it’s special whenever you get to coach at your alma mater, that’s always special,” Streeter says. “And to be here and to watch this program succeed like it has it’s just special for me and my family. My wife went to Clemson, and so, it’s just neat to raise our family here and watch the success that we’ve had.”