I recently wrote two blog posts (2011-2015; 2016-present) about my favorite Clemson football memories of the Swinney-era. Writing those naturally made me think of the student athletes that made them happen. As such, now I’d like to highlight some of my favorite Clemson players of the Swinney-era. Putting together this list was extremely challenging. Many of the players are separated by a razor thin margin. Nevertheless, I’ll countdown my favorite players and share some memories about each.
#12 Grady Jarrett (DT 2011-2014)
A three-star recruit from Conyers, GA, Jarrett was often overlooked as teammates like Stephone Anthony and Vic Beasley got most of the attention on defense. Nevertheless, Grady’s motor was relentless and he managed to slip into the backfield and blow up plays time and time again. He became a starter as a sophomore and an All-ACC DT as a senior.
After a great college career, NFL teams were concerned that at 6’0″ 290 lbs, he was “undersized” for the NFL. He slipped to the Falcons in the 5th round as a result. With Atlanta, Jarrett became a starter in his second season in the league. He tied the NFL record for sacks in a Super Bowl (3), earned a $68 million contract extension and promptly rewarded the Falcons by becoming a pro-bowler the next season. Grady was a huge asset for the Tigers and now my hometown Falcons
#11 Austin Bryant (DE – 2015-2018)
Bryant joined Clemson as a four-star recruit from Thomasville, GA. After contributing as a freshman, he broke his foot and missed six games the next season. He really came on as a junior when he tallied 8.5 sacks. He had his career game against Auburn when we tallied four sacks. A few weeks later, he flashed his athleticism when he snatched a one-handed INT against Virginia Tech.
Austin Bryant was part of the “Power Ranger” defensive line that all decided to return for their senior season after losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They all wanted to go out with a win and of course did that by winning the rematch vs. Alabama and going 15-0. While the extra season boosted the other Power Rangers into the first round (#4 Clelin Ferrell, #13 Christian Wilkins, #17 Dexter Lawrence), Austin Bryant dropped to the fourth round. That was primarily because of a torn pectoral. He actually suffered the tear in Clemson’s ninth game of the season (Louisville), but elected to postpone surgery so he could finish the year playing with his teammates and reach their goal. With a 44-16 win in Santa Clara, they met that goal. His self-sacrifice played a huge role in making that possible – especially with Dexter Lawrence suspended – and for that I’ll always hold him in incredibly high regard.
#10 Mitch Hyatt (LT 2015-2018):
You won’t see too many offensive linemen crack anyone’s favorite player list. It makes sense since they seldom make memorable individual plays. The offensive line is the ultimate team position and a job well done most often means not getting noticed. On top of that, Mitch Hyatt was a quiet kid, but he stood out to me nonetheless.
When he joined Clemson in 2015 from Suburan Atlanta near my hometown, there was a lot of excitement around finally landing a big OL recruit. Still, he wasn’t expected to be a major contributor right away. Instead, left tackle Isaiah Battle abruptly left to the team for the NFL’s supplemental draft. That forced Mitch Hyatt to start as a true freshman at the most important position on the offensive line – left tackle. While most thought it would create a huge problem for the offense, he rose to the challenge and was arguably an upgrade. Clemson’s offense was electric and they had a perfect regular season, won the ACC Championship and Orange Bowl, and scored 40 points on #1 Alabama in a close National Championship game loss.
Mitch Hyatt started all four years and in doing so earned the Clemson records for career snaps from scrimmage and career starts. He is a two-time All-American and a two-time National Champion. An offensive lineman isn’t going to catch your attention, but Mitch Hyatt deserves to be highlighted for all he did for Clemson’s program.
#9 & #8. “Thunder & Lightning” – James Davis (RB 2005-2008) & CJ Spiller (RB 2006-2009):
My first Clemson game was in 2006 against Georgia Tech. College GameDay was in town and the Tigers offense was set to lean on their star running backs, James Davis and CJ Spiller. They leaned on them heavily and the Yellow Jackets had no answers. Davis was the lead back and had the game of the night tallying 216 yards and 2 TDs on 21 carries. CJ Spiller had the most memorable play of the night though:
These two were the star players for the Tigers while I was a student. James Davis posted 1,000 yard seasons in 2006 and 2007. He was my favorite player during that time. He had a class in Brackett Hall and I’d pass him often, but never had the gall to say hello. As a sophomore I wrote for the school newspaper and penned an article called “Honest James” about how he guaranteed a win at Maryland and then delivered. I considered leaving James Davis off the list because he was more of a Tommy Bowden era player, but since we chanted James Davis’s name in the same 2008 Palmetto Bowl win that we chanted “Daaaa-bo Swinney” his inclusion felt right. As the host for CJ Spiller during Spiller’s recruiting visit, they seem intrinsically linked too.
Spiller was a tremendous recruiting coup for Clemson, but a bit of an enigmatic talent. After an outstanding freshman season with 938 rushing yards he failed to reach 800 yards in each of the next two seasons. His decision to return for his senior year totally changed his legacy though. Coach Swinney announced to a packed crowd in Littlejohn Coliseum that we just landed a “six-star recruit” and that’s CJ Spiller coming back for his senior season.
In his breakout senior campaign, Spiller carried Clemson to their first ever Atlantic division title, finishing with 1,212 rushing yards, 12 rushing TDs and 36 receptions for 503 yards and 4 more TDs. It propelled him to the #9 pick in the NFL draft. His success trail blazed the way for Coach Swinney to land more and more top recruits. Swinney even said “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for CJ Spiller.”
#7 Hunter Renfrow (WR 2014-2018):
An obvious fan favorite, Hunter Renfrow is a former walk-on turned stud slot receiver and National Championship hero. His hands were, statistically speaking, the best in the ACC. He wasn’t a major deep or redzone threat, but he was unstoppable on third downs. Clemson fans coined the term “third and Renfrow” for his penchant for coming up the first down catches.
In the 2015 National Championship, Renfrow was only a redshirt freshman, but he had a breakout game reeling in 7 catches for 88 yards and 2 touchdowns. The next year, when they toppled Alabama, he put up 10 catches for 92 yards and 2 touchdowns – including the game winner.
The most impressive catch I remember is the one he reeled in from Chase Brice that helped propel Clemson to a comeback over Syracuse in 2018. Of course the one he will forever be famous for is the game-winning catch from Deshaun Watson to win the 2016 National Championship.
Renfrow was drafted by the Raiders and again exceeded expectations by posting 49 catches for 605 yards in his rookie season. Despite the quick rise to stardom, Renfrow has always been exceedingly humble. He has spoken at churches and says he tries “to reflect the Lord because life is about Him.” He is now married to his college girlfriend and makes Clemson fans proud on and off the field as an NFL player.
#6 Christian Wilkins (DT 2015-2018):
Christian Wilkins was a five-star recruit all the way from Connecticut. Landing him in recruitment was one of the first signs that Clemson’s brand had grown far outside the state and region.
Wilkins has a big personality and his support for his teammates was never in question. He could often be seen running down the sideline to congratulate the offense after a score.
Prior to the 2016 season, DE Austin Bryant broke his foot. The team lacked depth at DE so Christian Wilkins shifted from defensive tackle to defensive end. While many assumed he would look like a block moving to DE, coach Marion Hobby said: “I’ll be danged, the sucker came out there the first couple days of practice and he really shocked me with his athletic ability and his awareness on the edge. He ended up getting accolades.” The selfless move paid dividends for the team as Clemson piled up the wins with Wilkins at DE until Austin Bryant returned. It ended up helping Christian Wilkins’ career too as his “versatility was a big part of his allure to the Dolphins” who selected him #13 in the NFL draft.
What cemented my love of Christian Wilkins was his tough and surprising decision to come back for his senior year. It gave the 2019 Clemson team arguably the best defensive line college football had ever seen and played a huge role in the Tigers going 15-0, blowing out Alabama, and staking their claim as the greatest team ever. Seeing him cry on the field after the game, knowing they came back to end their careers this way and pulled it off, was so sweet!
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed looking back at some of these Clemson Tiger greats! Be sure to share your favorites in the comments below and on social media.