Exclusive: Dabo Swinney explains why ex-Clemson stars fit as Raiders rookies


Lots of glitz and glamour goes with the NFL draft. It is, after all, a production.

TV cameras line the red carpet as the league’s future stars take their last walk before achieving their dreams. Along with the flashing bulbs and army of microphones, there's a Plinko board. It’s a fun final way for players, family members and friends to drop their chip and see where the draft gods will whisk them off.

Normally, the token lands far away from the team that actually calls their name. But for Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, the Plinko proved prophetic this year.

"I was at the draft and I walked the red carpet, and this Plinko or Blinko — I don’t know what it’s called — and I had to drop a chip and went all the way down, and dadgum if it didn’t hit the Raiders," Swinney told NBC Sports California over the phone. "So I said, ‘Welp, I guess someone is going to the Raiders.’ “

Sure enough, Raiders coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock picked three of Swinney's finest over the course of the three-day draft. First, they took defensive end Clelin Ferrell No. 4 overall. In the second round, they grabbed cornerback Trayvon Mullen, and in the fifth, they selected wide receiver Hunter Renfrow

For Swinney, who has spent the last 10 seasons building Clemson into college football’s jewel, one NFL franchise going all-in on his guys and his culture meant a lot. 

“Confirmation. Confirmation," Swinney said about his feelings watching the Raiders raid Clemson. “I tell you, it helps me to keep the faith that it still matters because I see so many teams make so many mistakes, and it just blows my mind on some of the decisions that are made. It really did my heart good. ... 

“And it was just kind of pretty cool for me, the confirmation that there are still some people out there who are looking for more than just a football player and they understand you win with people first. You have to have the character and the intangibles to go with the talent if you are going to build something special."

[LISTEN: Full interview with Swinney on The Raiders Insider Podcast]

Ferrell’s selection at No. 4 left many analysts and draft experts befuddled, but Swinney knows exactly the type of guy the Raiders drafted and believes they hit the nail on the head.

"I’ve met Jon Gruden a couple times, and I know Mayock, and I just think it was great because I’m not sure a lot of people thought that Clelin would go fourth, but let me tell you — they got it right," Swinney said. "That guy right there, he ain’t going to change his stripes. That's who you build a program with. Same thing with Trayvon, same thing with Hunter, and it’s just awesome.

“It’s a compliment to our program, and their comments after the draft were good to hear."

Gruden's first season back at the Raiders’ helm was a struggle. The Silver and Black traded away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper for draft picks, as Gruden looked to procure assets in order to build the team in his vision. The result was a 4-12 season during which the Raiders struggled on both sides of the ball.

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney talks to defensive end Clelin Ferrell before a 2018 game against Georgia Tech. The next year, Ferrell was an NFL first-round draft pick. (Jon Barash / The Associated Press)

Change began in the offseason when the Raiders brought in a number of new faces. Their drafting of Ferrell, Mullen and Renfrow is a sign that Gruden and Mayock wish to change the franchise in a number of ways, not just in wins and losses.

Having coached Renfrow for five seasons, Ferrell for four and Mullen for three, Swinney is more aware than anyone what those three players can bring to a Raiders franchise that’s looking for a new direction. 

"Yeah, well their ability on the field, you just can’t deny it," Swinney said. "Just turn the tape on. Those guys are special as football players. But [the Raiders] knew what they were looking for because they’ve got a big turnaround to make there and they are trying to build it the right way, and the thing about Cle, Trayvon and Hunter, they are great relationship people. Those guys have the ability, they were great leaders here and they recognized that. They were leaders."

During their time together at Clemson (the past three seasons), Ferrell, Mullen and Renfrow helped lead the Tigers to a 41-3 record and two College Football Playoff National Championships. The three former Tigers are very different, but there's one way in which all are cut from the same cloth, and that, Swinney believes, is what the Raiders recognized. 

"You know they do it differently," Swinney said. "You know, Trayvon is a great leader. His style is different than Cle’s, and Hunter is different from both of them. But the one thing they all have in common is they are lead-by-example guys. They are above-and-beyond guys. They are not going to be talking about it. They are going to be leading by doing it.

“But yet, they are not afraid to challenge a teammate, and they are all three relationship people. They value relationships, and they respect the chain of command. That’s some of the stuff that they recognized in all three of them."

Early returns from Raiders training camp have been positive for all three of Swinney's former players. Ferrell has impressed a number of veterans on the team in how he conducts himself, how hard he works and his attention to detail. The son of two U.S. Army veterans, Ferrell starred at Benedictine Preparatory School in Richmond, Va., where Swinney first discovered the type of player and person the 6-foot-5 edge rusher is.

"With Cle, man, you spend time with Cle, his mom is military, his dad was military, you got up to Benedictine, that little military school up in Richmond, and he’s in a uniform,” Swinney said. “He had structure, he had discipline, he understood accountability, and these are all things that are here at Clemson, and we work really hard as a place, and it’s not a shock to me that — he tore his ACL and how he responded to that and how he responded to missing his senior year of football.

"Sometimes you deal with these guys, they’ll tell you anything, but Clelin is man of his word," Swinney continued. "The recruiting process was very easy. He said, ‘I’m coming to Clemson,’ and it was over. He comes in here [and] it’s not a surprise he left here as one of the greatest leaders we’ve ever had come through. He came in, he got in line, he went to work, he bought in to the right things — really truly bought in — and ultimately when he left here, he was one of the main guys doing the teaching and holding the young people to the standard that’s been set. He took a lot of pride in that." 

Clemson cornerback Trayvon Mullen and coach Dabo Swinney celebrate after winning the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Santa Clara (Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports)

As for Renfrow, the 5-foot-10, 183-pound slot receiver has opened eyes early on at Raiders training camp. He's been tasked with going up against veteran cornerback Lamarcus Joyner in practice, and has fared well.

Renfrow, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship, wasn't the highly-sought-after recruit that Ferrell and Mullen were, and he doesn't look like anything remotely resembling a football player. 

“Yeah, he doesn’t look like what a football player would look like, much less a slot receiver," Swinney said with a chuckle. "You never ever — you’d lose that battle 100 times out of 100 — you’re never going to pick Hunter Renfrow as a college football player, much less an NFL player. But I always say l, man, football players come in all shapes and sizes, that’s why so many people make so many mistakes."

Renfrow arrived in Death Valley as an athletic, multi-sport athlete who needed to work hard to become an NFL player. Swinney has watched Renfrow grow from a preferred walk-on into a superhero in pads, and the coach knows big things await his former receiver when he dons the Silver and Black.

"The thing with Hunter is, you know, he was 150 pounds. He was athletic, but he was weak," Swinney said. "He literally, literally benched 125 pounds when he came to Clemson. He’s a three-sport athlete, he was never in the weight room, you know he was always twitchy and fast, but never in a million years would you think he’s a football player if you just walked up.

“Sometimes we get blinded by how people look, we judge that book by its cover, but the game of football, if it was just about size and strength and running fast, we’d just go over to the track and sign everybody. The game of football, you still have to be a football player. That’s one of the key things in our evaluation is: Is he a football player? You can’t just look the part. You’ve got to be able to play the part. Hunter is one of those guys. We didn’t offer him a scholarship, but we certainly recruited him as a preferred walk-on because we saw some potential. 

"He’s what’s fun about this game," Swinney continued. "Football players come in all shapes and sizes — they really do — at the end of the day you got to be able to play between the lines, and he is the epitome of that, for sure. When he puts that helmet on I don’t know what happens, he becomes Superman. It’s like Clark Kent taking his glasses off or something. He just has a gift to be able to play the game, and he’s still not anywhere close to a finished product ... Just one of the most unassuming guys you’ll ever be around.

“There’s really nothing special about him when you look at him — he just kind of looks like a dad — and he’s 22, 23 years old, but when he puts that helmet on, man, magic happens. He’s always been that way, and it’s been fun to watch. I can’t wait to see him play at the next level. He’s going to tear it up."

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow celebrate during the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship in Tampa, Fla. (Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports)

In order to transform their franchise, Gruden, Mayock and the Raiders had to hit on a draft that was loaded with talent. It was imperative they brought in not only football players -- and winners -- but workers, students and guys who have been in and know how to create that winning culture. 

"Hunter is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and just an inspiring guy by how he practices and how he performs," Swinney said. "You just can’t help but like the guy. And Cle and Trayvon, Oh my goodness! Those guys are relentless in their pursuit of greatness, and they are not afraid to reach down and grab people to make them come with them.

“That’s what I think the Raiders recognized in those guys, and it was a big reason why — yes, they are very good players, but there’s a lot of good players. But good players who are great people, who are committed to excellence in everything that they do, not just some of the things that they do, then that pool gets a little smaller. That's why they took those three guys."

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