Dabo Swinney and the Tigers are saying goodbye to a pair of former five-star recruits
In the past week, Dabo Swinney and his Clemson football team have had two former five-star recruits announce they were leaving the program. That, however, is where the similarities end.
These two situations are vastly different as are the fan responses to each decision. Also, the on-field impact of each loss is not the same and that plays into the reaction of the Clemson faithful.
Hunter Johnson's departure seemed inevitable. Ranked by some as the top quarterback in the class of 2017, Johnson committed to Clemson after a previous pledge to Tennessee. But before he enrolled at Clemson, all-everything 2018 quarterback Trevor Lawrence declared that he too would attend Clemson.
Because of his prior de-commitment and Lawrence's already large reputation, many experts felt that Johnson would reconsider and sign with another school. But proving he isn't afraid of competition, the Indiana product held strong on his Clemson commitment and became a Tiger.
There is no shame in not beating out junior Kelly Bryant for the starting spot as a true freshman and it was not a surprise that Lawrence lived up to expectations this spring. Johnson actually showed immense promise during his time at Clemson; he was just beaten out by even better competitors. As a result, he was blocked on the depth chart and was smart to find a new home.
Unless Lawrence is injured or is not as good as he appears to be, Clemson will be perfectly fine at the quarterback position. Chase Brice would start at a large number of Power 5 programs and dual threat Taisun Phommachanh will arrive next year. With Johnson reportedly looking at schools in the Big Ten footprint, Tiger message boards were filled with well wishes as Johnson moves on.
The same could not be said for Josh Belk. The 6-foot-3, 309-defensive tackle committed to Clemson back in January 2017 and remained in the Tiger fold until he signed with Clemson in December and enrolled a few weeks later, though other schools made runs at the Richburg, South Carolina, star throughout the process. One school was particularly aggressive and many Clemson supporters believe that they did not stop even after Belk was on the Clemson campus.
That school would be the University of South Carolina and there are reports that the Gamecocks may now be Belk's first choice. Of course, to a Clemson fan, that would be akin to suiting up for the Taliban. Swinney could have blocked such a move but decided to grant an unconditional release that allows Belk to go to any program, even that one. Belk has announced that he intends to visit Georgia as well as South Carolina, which doesn't make those in orange feel much better. The Georgia visit brings into question Belk's initial stated reason for leaving: to be closer to an ailing family member in Richburg.
But it is more than just Belk's choice to leave and his possible future destination that has caused consternation in the upstate. The fact that most of Belk's statements are going through his attorney, Everett Stubbs, makes this a more curious case.
On top of everything, Clemson did not want to lose a promising defensive tackle. Possessing one of the most potent defensive lines in the country, Belk probably wouldn't have received much playing time in 2018. But he showed in the spring that he had what it takes to be a major contributor in future years.
And most likely that future would have started in 2019. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins are seniors and it's unlikely that Dexter Lawrence will return after this season. Belk was expected to be a key cog in the Clemson defense beginning his sophomore season. But now, that won't be happening and the Tigers will be very thin on the defensive interior after this season.
So yes, two talented players left the Clemson program in a matter of days. Usually, the departure of the five-star quarterback would be considered the big news. But in this case, everyone is talking about a defensive tackle that may want to jump to the enemy.
-- Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.