Why did Clemson football take zero transfers in 2024? Dabo explains portal strategy

Maybe it was the declaration that most of the players in the transfer portal “aren’t good enough” to play for the Clemson football team.

Or the insistence that, after the Tigers posted their fewest wins in a season since 2010, the players in their locker room were still the right ones to turn things around.

Or the viral clip that everyone on the Clemson football roster is “technically a transfer. We just signed a whole class of guys transferring from high school.”

Whatever it was, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s recent comments on his program’s lack of transfer portal additions struck a particular nerve in the college football world last week — and reignited the long-running debate about whether the Tigers can reestablish themselves as a national championship contender without using one of the most popular roster-building tools in the sport.

During a series of interviews last week from Amelia Island, Florida, where the ACC held its annual spring meetings, Swinney set off a social media firestorm as he offered lengthy defenses and explanations of Clemson’s lack of NCAA transfer portal additions following a 9-4 season in 2023.

After snapping a 12-year streak of 10-plus win seasons and missing a third consecutive College Football Playoff last fall, Swinney and Clemson brought in zero players during the sport’s winter and spring transfer portal windows and will head into the 2024 season with a roster of players they’ve recruited exclusively out of high school. Over the past four years, Clemson has seen 42 players transfer out.

It’s added two.

Naturally, that strategy drew plenty of online criticism — primarily after a graphic circulated earlier this month highlighting how Clemson was one of only four FBS football programs (out of 134) to take in zero transfers during the 2024 portal cycle, along with Army, Air Force and Navy.

Swinney was asked about that graphic during a May 14 appearance on the ACC Network’s “ACC PM” show and set off an initial wave of social media fireworks.

“Well, it wasn’t necessarily an intentional thing,” Swinney said. “There were a couple guys we looked at. But they’ve gotta love you, too.”

He added with a grin: “And honestly, every player is technically a transfer. We just signed a whole class of guys transferring from high school. So we like our guys. We like our starters.”

Dabo’s strategy ‘way behind’

Swinney doubled down on those viral comments during a May 16 appearance on SiriusXM College Sports Radio, detailing how there are “three types of players in the portal” and Clemson is rarely a fit for any of them.

“The majority of the guys, they’re guys that are in the portal because they want to have a chance to go start somewhere and they’re not playing where they are,” he said. “They’re not good enough to come in and play for us. We’d rather take a good high school player as long as we can get them, which we do, and develop them.”

The other two types of players in the transfer portal, Swinney said, are those who only enter as a formality “because the deal’s already been done” because of tampering — something Swinney has called out in the past — and those who go in the portal “just to see what he can get.”

“And we’re never gonna win that war,” said Swinney, who’s said publicly many times that Clemson will not use name, image and likeness (NIL) money as a recruiting enticement, as many schools do.

Swinney, in his SiriusXM interview, went on to say it was a “miracle” his team has retained 125 of the 127 players (including walk-ons) who went through spring practice with Clemson and emphasized that the Tigers’ position as an established power has helped with retention.

“We have not changed,” Swinney said. “How we do things on the front end is different. We’re unique. It’s not that we’re anti-portal. People love to throw that out there. We’ve signed guys from the portal. But we just look at our roster. … We’ve been able to address our needs.”

Indeed, Clemson ventured into the transfer portal like never before last offseason, extending scholarship offers to four different veteran offensive linemen (all of whom picked different schools). And yes, the Tigers have reached out to other transfers over the year, including two offensive linemen who became NFL Draft picks and a current Florida State starting corner.

It’s not even a stretch to say most players in the transfer portal aren’t good enough to play right away at Clemson — for most of the thousands of players who seek playing time elsewhere, that logic would generally apply at most Top 25 programs.

That said, Swinney’s vigorous defense of Clemson’s lack of transfer portal usage made him a trending topic all of last week and early this week — even more so than it did last September, when a season-opening loss at Duke revealed some major shortcomings on Clemson’s 2023 roster.

“There’s a difference between belief in your ideas and obstinance,” Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote.

“His stance is no longer realistic if Clemson wants to win national championships again,” Grace Raynor of The Athletic wrote.

“Dabo Swinney may think he’s smart, playing this game of how it’s going to be, but that’s not the way things are,” ESPN’s Paul Finebaum said in reaction to Swinney’s comments, adding that college football has “changed so quickly in the last three years, and if you missed a minute, you fell behind. He missed three years, and he is way behind and he’s not catching up.”

Clemson ‘not afraid to be unique’

Swinney, 54, turned Clemson into a modern-era power with an old school approach focused on a family-esque program, player retention and development. That worked brilliantly during Clemson’s 2015-20 peak, in which the Tigers made six straight CFPs and won two national titles with a combination of blue chip recruits and brilliantly identified contributors (the Hunter Renfrows and Nolan Turners of the world).

But Clemson — despite 30 wins, an ACC championship and two bowl wins over the past three seasons — has taken a step back from the top tier of college football. The Tigers lost 10 games in total from 2015-20. They’ve lost 10 games the last three years alone, including four last year.

Swinney correctly pointed out during various interviews last week that the Tigers are still winning at a historic rate, producing NFL Draft picks and recruiting elite high school players.

Clemson had the No. 11 composite recruiting class in the country this year, and players like five-star linebacker Sammy Brown, five-star receiver TJ Moore and five-star receiver Bryant Wesco Jr. could immediately emerge as plug-and-play stars.

But since the NCAA cleared the way for one-time transfers in 2021, Clemson has signed just two: Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson (who started his career with the Tigers) for 2022, and Arizona State quarterback Paul Tyson. Both players served as third-string quarterbacks and never started a game.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have lost 42 players to the portal over the past four cycles, including 12 after the 2022 and 11 after the 2023 season. The latter group included starters such as receiver Beaux Collins (Notre Dame) and safety Andrew Mukuba (Texas) as well as underclassmen such as cornerback Toriano Pride (Missouri), defensive end David Ojiegbe (Pitt) and offensive tackle Zack Owens (Colorado).

That was a significant a change from past years, when Clemson would generally lose a number of veteran depth players and/or graduates. Swinney had touted the fact the Tigers hadn’t lost a starter to the portal as recently as last summer.

Contrary to popular belief, Swinney said Clemson heavily factors the transfer portal into its roster construction every year. At various points following the 2023 season, he’s openly volunteered that Clemson considered adding portal players at receiver, linebacker, defensive end and center.

But at each position, he said, Swinney and his assistant coaches have overwhelmingly agreed to stick with the players they already have on their roster and/or pursue more high school players — or, in the case of the aforementioned offensive linemen, swing and miss on landing a few transfers.

“We love Avieon Terrell,” Swinney said, using Clemson’s cornerback position as an example. “We love Shelton Lewis. We love Jeadyn Lukus. We love Corian Gipson. Boom, boom, boom. All these guys we signed. … If you go get a guy, somebody’s leaving. So you gotta be willing to give something up. You can’t just keep adding, you know? There’s a give and take.”

There’s also an early proving ground for Swinney’s declaration that Clemson, which finished No. 20 in the final AP Top 25 poll after a five-game winning streak, is still among the sport’s elite.

The Tigers open the season against a star-studded Georgia team in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Aug. 31, and the result of that Week 1 game might as well be a final referendum on Swinney’s transfer portal comments from last week.

“There’s a lot of people that talk about that, but we just do what we think is best for Clemson,” Swinney said on SiriusXM. “If that’s sometimes the same as what other people do, great. If it’s different, then it’s different. But we’re not afraid to be unique and do things the way we think is best for us at Clemson and for our team.”

For better or for worse.