C.J. Spiller, a consensus five-star running back from tiny Lake Butler, Fla., had 50-plus offers from which to choose back in 2006, but in the end it all came down to three schools: Florida, Florida State and Clemson.
Sammy Watkins was a five-star prospect from southwest Florida.
To put it bluntly, the Tigers were the clear-cut dark horse.
Or so everyone thought.
Not only were the Gators and Seminoles right in his backyard, but both programs had much higher national profiles than Clemson. The Gators, located only a half-hour away, already had a class that included five-star talents Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes and Tim Tebow under the direction of second-year head coach Urban Meyer.
Meanwhile, Florida State was putting together a highly touted group of its own with players such as Christian Ponder and Myron Rolle being the headliners.
Spiller, of course, would pull the signing day shocker of 2006 by picking the Tigers.
His primary recruiter out of high school?
That would be Dabo Swinney, then a Tigers assistant tasked with handling northeast Florida.
After a stellar Clemson career, Spiller now is in the NFL. And of course, Swinney is Clemson's head coach, a role he has had since replacing Tommy Bowden during the 2008 season.
Clemson pulled Travis Blanks out of Tallahassee.
While Swinney's title within the program might have changed, his emphasis on recruiting the Sunshine State has not.
"We all know our footprint here in South Carolina," Swinney said. "We don't have a huge number of Division I-A players so we have to go down there and recruit."
The roster for Clemson, which is unbeaten and plays at Florida State this weakend, includes just seven Florida products. However, five of them are key contributors, three are starters and one is wide receiver Sammy Watkins, arguably the most electrifying offensive player in college football.
Not every athlete plucked by Clemson from the Sunshine State through the years has succeeded in college, but the Tigers certainly have hit their share of home runs.
Long before Watkins and Spiller, they landed Patrick Sapp, who played linebacker at Clemson, and safety Brian Dawkins out of Jacksonville. Both reached the NFL, and Dawkins became a regular Pro Bowl selection.
In recent years, players such as quarterback Kyle Parker (Jacksonville Bartram Trail), defensive backs Chris Chancellor (Miami Edison) and DeAndre McDaniel (Tallahassee Godby), and linebacker Kevin Alexander (Lake Butler Union County) were key contributors for the Tigers.
In February, Clemson's signing class of 20 included just one Floridian. But defensive back Travis Blanks, recruited to Clemson by assistant Jeff Scott out of traditional-power Tallahassee North Florida Christian, already is the Tigers' staring nickleback.
To many, Clemson's Sunshine State haul in 2011 stands out. That year, the Tigers got Watkins, a five-star prospect, along with five-star outside linebacker Tony Steward, four-star running back Mike Bellamy and four-star athlete Cortez Davis. Of that group, only Watkins has made much of an impact thus far at Clemson (Bellamy isn't even with the program), but at the time those pickups were heard throughout the recruiting world.
Jayron Kearse is a four-star pickup from the Sunshine State.
Why has Clemson had so much success in Florida?
"I think they've done great because they've gotten in really early with kids -- significantly early, like when they're sophomores," 247Sports national analyst Gerry Hamilton said. "They get those kids to campus, so Dabo can develop relationships with them. They've done a great job building relationships early on. Two years ago especially. They were really early on kids in that state, and they got them locked up early so they could continue to develop those relationships."
To Hamilton, the Spiller commit in 2006 was particularly significant, and put the major powers in Florida on alert.
"I think getting C.J. Spiller is probably the biggest [of the signees from Florida]," Hamilton said. "He was 30 minutes from Gainesville, and they got him late in the process. That was one they could build on. And really, getting Sammy Watkins out of southwest Florida was also big. That's even farther away from Clemson."
In this cycle, Clemson has two commitments from Floridans. Four-star athlete Jayron Kearse of South Fort Myers, one of the state's most coveted prospects, is one of them.
Longterm, can the Tigers continue to succeed in Florida while fighting with the Gators, Seminoles, Hurricanes and everyone else that makes the state a high priority? That remains to be seen, but it seems likely they'll keep trying as long as Swinney is running the show.
"It will always be a competitive situation," Swinney said of recruiting in Florida, and in particular against the conference-rival Seminoles. "We have to go on their turf a lot and [the Tigers] have had some great success."
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