CLEMSON — Lake Jackson is a prairie lake just north of Tallahassee, Fla., where Jeff Scott learned to fish as a boy, navigating the shallow waters in search of largemouth bass with his father Brad Scott, then an assistant at Florida State. The lake is also where the Clemson recruiting coordinator developed a philosophy of quality over quantity.
“You can catch a bunch of small fish here or you go to this (hole) and you might not catch as many but the ones you catch are going to be really big,” Scott said. “I was always a guy that liked to try and catch those big ones.”
Scott’s strategy paid off on National Signing Day. Clemson enjoyed a sizeable catch in cornerback Mackensie Alexander, the nation’s No. 4 overall prospect according to ESPN, the highest grade for a Clemson signee since Da’Quan Bowers in 2008.
Clemson added four other undecided players Wednesday to bring its class to 23 signees and earn a consensus team ranking of 14th overall. It was the third straight top 15 class for Clemson and Scott.
The class was designed to fill needs: 15 players in the class are defensive players, including eight defensive backs.
The class was designed to produce immediate impact: Clemson figures to enter 2013 with a top 10 ranking and potent offense, but had immediate needs on defense.
“Defensive back was the No. 1 need. That was evident before the season and throughout the year,” Scott said. “For us to be able to make a strong run like we are planning on doing, we needed to get some help in the secondary. (Alexander) is a guy we feel is a franchise corner.”
Scott said the targeting of defensive backs was similar to Clemson’s focus on receivers in 2011. Clemson thinks Alexander possesses the speed, ball skills, tackling ability and worth ethic to make an early impact like Sammy Watkins did at receiver, an opinion shared by ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill.
“(Alexander) should come in and have a role,” Luginbill said. “These guys aren’t growing on trees. These teams with great corners and (defensive linemen) have a chance, on defense, to separate themselves. We know what the Clemson offense is but you have to be able to get it done on defense.”
The signing of Alexander eases Clemson’s misses on five-star defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), and five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams (Auburn).
Alexander is the anti-Nkemdiche as he avoided the media spotlight during the recruiting process, and was not influenced by family in making his college choice. Alexander’s twin brother, Mackenro, chose Auburn on Wednesday.
“My family wanted us to play together, but I wanted to be my own man and do my own thing,” Alexander said. “(Clemson coach Dabo Swinney) is a church guy like me. He made it from the bottom to the top.”
He is the anti-Nkemdiche as he comes not from privilege but the impoverished town of Immokalee, Fla., the son of Haitian immigrant.
“I want to take care of my parents one day,” Alexander told ESPN. “That’s why I’m so driven.”
Alexander wasn’t the only big fish in the class.
Six-foot-two, 315-pound guard Tyrone Crowder (Rockingham, N.C.) chose Clemson and is a consensus top 200 player. Four-star safety Adrian Baker also picked Clemson on signing day. Four-star defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Ebenezer Ogundeko (Brooklyn, N.Y.) are already enrolled.
“I’m batting .500 on Nigerian mamas,” said Swinney, referencing Ogundeko and the snub by Nkdemiche’s mother. “There probably should have been a reality show following me and (defensive line coach) Dan Brooks going to Brooklyn.”
There were other big fish like 6-5 receiver Mike Williams, who Swinney compared to DeAndre Hopkins.
There were others, but it was Alexander’s decision that made the greatest splash.