I previously posted my #12 through #6 favorite players. That list included Grady Jarrett, Austin Bryant, Mitch Hyatt, James Davis, CJ Spiller, Hunter Renfrow, and Christian Wilkins. Now we’ll take a look at my five favorite football players in Clemson football over the Dabo-Swinney era.
#5 Deshaun Watson (QB 2014-2016)
The first three-year player to make the list is Clemson legend, Deshaun Watson. Watson was a highly-touted QB recruit from Georgia who started making waves early as a freshman. He flashed his brilliance in an early season loss at Georgia. He took over at FSU and nearly led the Tigers to a victory. While injuries held him back that year, it was obvious he was a star in the making. Playing on a torn ACL, he beat the Gamecocks, ended their five-game winning streak over Clemson, and became a Clemson superstar.
The next two years saw Clemson rise to elite status, but fall just short of the National Championship and then finally cash in with a title in 2016. Deshaun Watson was dynamic in both title games. He left Clemson widely viewed as the best QB in school history after just three years, forever changing the program, and was a first round pick in the NFL draft.
While his on the field accomplishments made him famous, Watson is more appropriately defined by his faith, charity-work, and humble demeanor.
#4 Travis Etienne (RB 2017-Present)
Travis Etienne is from Jennings, Louisiana, but after LSU focused their recruiting attention on top RB recruit Cam Akers (who went to FSU), Etienne figured “They didn’t want me.” When Clemson had a late decommitment, Coach Elliott reached out and Etienne eventually joined the ACC’s Tigers instead.
As a true freshman, Travis Etienne started the year behind Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice, and CJ Fuller, but by the end of the year, he tied Tavien Feaster in carries (107) and led the team in rushing yards (766). His explosiveness – the sheer acceleration – was something we hadn’t seen since CJ Spiller. Sammy Watkins comes close, but at the running back position, he was a marvel to watch. His TD run against Louisville was truly jaw dropping:
His run against Boston College was similar:
As a sophomore, he became the lead-back – though with Tavien Feaster also getting a decent share of the carries. Etienne made the most of every opportunity averaging an absurd 8.1 YPC. He punched in 24 touchdowns (and caught 2 more) while playing a huge role in Clemson’s second National Championship Game victory over Alabama. As a junior, he was again spectacular finishing with 7.8 YPC and 19 TDs. With the National Championship Game in his home state and Clemson earning a trip to face LSU, it seemed that he would play his final game in front of his friends and family and then head to the NFL.
A loss in the Superdome, a 2nd round – not 1st round – NFL draft grade, and an old promise to his mother that he’d get his degree led him to the surprising decision to come back for his senior year. As a result, Etienne, already the holder of Clemson’s rushing yards and rushing TD records, could make his mark as the greatest football player in school history.
With 56 career rushing touchdowns already, he is only 18 more away from passing Ricky Williams and Travis Prentice for second all-time among RBs and with 22 rushing touchdowns he would pass Monte Ball (77) for most rushing TDs by a college RB. Travis Etienne is quietly becoming a Clemson legend and he’s done it all with humility, commitment, and an infectious smile.
#3 Ben Boulware (LB – 2013-2016)
Ben Boulware grew up in Anderson, dreaming of playing for the Tigers as his older brother, Garrett, did on the baseball diamond. Despite earning a four-star rating from Rivals, Clemson’s offer was slow to come. He was angry with Clemson, but when the offer finally came, he was all-in.
Boulware played sparingly as a freshman, appearing in just five games. As a sophomore his playing time increased, but he was still a back-up and the grind was wearing on him. According to an excellent article by Matt Hayes, he was considering quitting and just enjoying his time at Clemson as a student. After a heart-to-heart with Coach Venables, he decided to return and ended up creating quite a legacy. Maybe his first big moment in that legacy came in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl:
In 2015, Boulware became the starting weakside linebacker and brought a physical edge to the defense. He became the emotional leader of the unit and aside from Deshaun Watson, the face of the team. His most memorable play that year was the two-point conversion stop that clinched the win over Notre Dame:
The Tigers made a Cinderella run to the National Championship game that year. In the Denver airport on my way to that game, a young woman with a ridiculous cutout sign of Ben Boulware’s face sat down next to me at the terminal. When I asked her about it, it turned out she was was Ben’s girlfriend and the other folks in the group were his parents. They were kind enough to chat with me until our plane arrived – a cool experience for me as a fan.
After losing the final game of 2015, 2016 was heavily focused on getting back to the national championship and finishing the job. They reached that game in Tampa and Boulware seemed to always be in the right spot thanks to the heavy film study he prided himself on.
The Tiger’s put together a game-winning drive and won the title in Boulware’s final game. Bouwlare was named the defensive MVP and gave a rousing speech, which remains one of the most memorable moments of my sports fandom.
One NFL scout said he “plays the game how it should be played. We’re not having tea and cookies out there.” Boulware was a huge part of Clemson defense as they rose from very good, to elite, to dynastic. He was physical, emotional, and fun to watch. He epitomizes why we love football!
#2 Trevor Lawrence (QB 2018-Present)
What Trevor Lawrence did as a true freshman was incredible. After committing as a junior and never wavering, there were sky high expectations the moment Lawrence, the top recruit in the country, stepped on campus.
Kelly Bryant continued to lack the downfield throwing prowess that many felt was necessary to topple Alabama – an almost inevitable playoff opponent. Trevor Lawrence flashed that potential, and found himself thrust into a hotly contested QB battle. Here’s what Lawrence did on his first throw of the Week 2 game at Texas A&M:
After splitting the QB job for the first four games, he won it before their fifth contest of the year and Kelly Bryant left the team to redshirt. Dan Lian, a pastor in Clemson said Lawrence “was torn up about Kelly. It was wild. He was broken for Kelly.”
After getting hurt in the very next game, the Tigers pulled out a tight win over Syracuse. Lawrence returned the next weekend and it was scorched earth for the rest of the season and even through the playoffs as the Tigers blew the doors off Notre Dame and then beat Alabama even worse. It was arguably best freshman Championship performance ever.
As a sophomore, Lawrence threw for 3,665 yards with a 36-8 TD-INT ratio, but his struggles were the topic of ESPN’s talking heads who placed unrealistic expectations on the star QB. As the season progressed, he found his groove and the Tigers made another Championship appearance. This time he legitimately played poorly and will now look to bounce back from the lone poor game of his career.
Through all the challenges and spotlight, Lawrence has been a great ambassador for Clemson. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his girlfriend started a Charity Go Fund Me for victims. When a classmate of his then nine year old sister was in the hospital for a heart transplant Lawrence visited the hospital in Atlanta, “spent a few hours there, snapped photos, said how proud he was of Brody’s work in rehab and knelt down by Brody’s bed and prayed with him.” He is so great on the field, that would be enough for him to be your favorite player, but he is more than just a football player. He says “God gave me these things for a reason, not just talent on the field, but other opportunities to be a light to people.”
#1 Tajh Boyd (2010-2013)
Where would Clemson’s program be today if not for guys like James Davis, CJ Spiller, Stephone Anthony, Sammy Watkins, and Tajh Boyd? There’s no doubt Boyd’s legacy has been surpassed by the superstar QBs that followed him, but would they have even considered Clemson if not for Tajh Boyd’s record setting career as a Tiger?
Boyd followed Kyle Parker as the Clemson starting QB, taking over after the brutal 6-7 2010 season. In that context, the Tigers jump to 10-4 ACC Champions in 2011 seemed like a miracle. As the final minutes were ticking off the clock in at that ACC Championship game blow out of Virginia Tech, a Clemson fan in my section stood on his seat and screamed “That’s why Carolina is in Chapel Hill and USC is in California and THE university in this state has been and always will be Clemson!” The section went wild. What seems like small potatoes now, meant the world to us back then. We had just won our first ACC Championship since 1991.
Tajh Boyd was often criticized for his struggles in big games. While that was the case at times, particularly against U of SC, he more often rose to the occasion. As a sophomore, he led the offense to 38 and 35 point performances in wins over Auburn and FSU as well as a 38-point performance in their blowout of Virginia Tech in the aforementioned ACC Championship. His 2012 junior campaign is remembered for his gutsy play in a comeback win over LSU in the Peach Bowl – a performance opposing coach Les Miles called “heroic.” His senior season featured a 38-35 win over #5 UGA and a 40-35 victory over #7 Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, which capped off his Clemson career. Those are some big time performances in big games.
That success is now somewhat overshadowed by the incredible success of Boyd’s successors, but even with their success Boyd remains #1 in ACC history in passing touchdowns and #2 in passing yards. While there’s no doubt Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence have exceeded his per game on-field production, Boyd still showed the prettiest deep ball Clemson fans have ever got to enjoy.
Boyd was a model citizen off the field. He never stirred controversy, always exhibited humility, and showed his human side a bit when admitting the pressure was weighing on him. He passed on the draft to come back for his senior year after a career game against LSU in the 2012 Peach Bowl. Some argue it ultimately hurt his draft stock, but he says “I passed on the draft and stayed in school, and I’m glad I did.” For Clemson fans, that decision gave Clemson the only BCS bowl any school from South Carolina has ever won. Boyd took over a team that had just went 6-7 and left them as an Orange Bowl Champions. He played a huge part in Clemson ascending to the next level and he has forever ingratiated himself to Clemson fans for that.
Creating this top 5 and the overall 12 player list was much harder than I imagined. I hope this is viewed more as a tribute to these players than a slight to players who were left off or ranked lower than you expected.
Some of the toughest omissions from the list include: WRs Artavis Scott, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams. Tee Higgins could be on that list as well. Eric Mac Lain, now on the ACC Network, Gage Cervenka from Greenwood, and Jay Guillermo, who bravely opened up about mental health issues are some of my favorites from the offensive line.
Wayne Gallman, who’s tough running and pass protection played a big role in the Tigers 2016 title and Deandre McDaniel, who was in my freshman year CU101 class and delivered a memorable hit on FSU QB Christian Ponder are others who easily could have made this list. The names could go on for pages so I’ll end now before others come to mind. Please share some of your favorites with me in the comments or on social media and let’s enjoy some of the fun memories they created as we wade through what is hopefully the latter portion of the COVID-19 quarantine.