Before he committed to Clemson football in June, four-star defensive end AJ Hoffler interacted with dozens of Power Five schools on the recruiting trail.
And it didn’t take long, he said, to realize that the Tigers were a bit of an anomaly when it came to name, image and likeness. How so?
“They don’t pay kids,” Hoffler said.
Clemson’s message to Hoffler throughout his recruitment was clear: Football was the “main thing,” the sport that had already gotten him this far, and they wanted to keep it that way. No distractions.
In contrast to other pitches he said he heard, Clemson’s was a simple and appealing approach.
“Just do your thing on the field and the money will come, the NIL deals will come,” Hoffler said. “So it’s nothing like they’ll pay you. They don’t do anything like that. They’re one of the few schools that I know that don’t.”
As Clemson prepares to sign the No. 12 recruiting class in the country Wednesday, that was the overarching message among 2023 recruits: While other college programs may be leaning into pay-for-play setups under the guise of NIL — which is banned but infrequently, if ever, enforced under NCAA guidelines — the Tigers are steering clear of such inducements.
“That’s integrity right there,” said Tyler Brown, a three-star wide receiver recruit from nearby Greenville. “That’s what brought me in, for sure.”
Quarterback Christopher Vizzina, one of 19 four- or five-star prospects among Clemson’s 25 projected signees, concurred. NIL wasn’t a taboo topic during his recruitment — the Tigers have made various moves in that space since last summer — but it wasn’t the opener either.
“In short, they do it the right way,” Vizzina said.
In college football specifically, the past year’s been a steady drizzle of pay-for-play beefs: coaches of smaller programs complaining of tampering, others characterizing the sport’s offseason as a glorified free agency, Alabama’s Nick Saban flat out saying that Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M program, one of his rivals in the SEC West, “bought every player on their team.”
Just this week, UNC coach Mack Brown said that quarterback and reigning ACC Player of the Year Drake Maye “turned down a whole lot of money” to stay with the Tar Heels instead of transferring elsewhere. He declined to say which schools had approached his QB about a transfer.
“I can’t say, and don’t ask Drake,” Brown said. “You know who they are. Just look at all the ones who are getting all the top recruits.”
’The last thing’ Clemson talks about
Hoffler, who’s from Atlanta, said the concept of pay for play via NIL — often set up through alumni-run collectives — came up a few times during his recruitment. The same goes for many of his high school football friends across the state of Georgia, which is, as per usual, loaded with elite talent in the Class of 2023.
“I know a bunch of schools that have,” Hoffler said. “But you can see throughout the season, the schools where kids went there just for NIL, it doesn’t always pan out. (A lot of times) they were leaving in the transfer portal. Clemson just wants to do stuff the right way.”
Speaking at the ACC’s preseason football media days this summer, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said NIL “hasn’t changed our approach at all, besides adding one more thing we need to have answers for and talk about when people come in. … It’s not anything we lead with. It’s the last thing we talk about.”
The longtime coach acknowledged that approach might hurt Clemson with a handful of elite recruits year to year but insisted that “I don’t want guys to come for NIL.” And if a player were to ask Clemson what the school could do for him, monetarily, during his recruitment?
“Yeah, we won’t get them,” Swinney said.
Brown, an in-state receiver who’d been committed to Minnesota before flipping to Clemson in November, said that’s how the Tigers presented NIL opportunities to him. The chance to make money as a college athlete wasn’t the main course. It was more of a sweetener.
“That had really nothing to do with my decision,” Brown said. “I’m going to Clemson for the program and the genuine coaches and the consistency there.”
At the same time, he said Clemson has a “great NIL program” for he and other athletes to use. In April, the university launched Reign, a wide-ranging project branded by director of athletics Graham Neff as the “next generation” of the Tigers’ name, image and likeness programming.
As part of that initiative, the school is building the Clemson Athletics Branding Institute, a standalone space for NIL activity featuring photo studios, video studios, multipurpose office spaces and other assets. It’s the first of its kind in the country, according to the school.
In terms of staffing, the Clemson athletics department employs an NIL director, a senior NIL coordinator specifically for football and seven other employees whose jobs are at least partially connected to NIL-specific efforts, according to information obtained via a public records request.
Thanks to an NCAA policy clarification, Clemson’s also been able to more directly endorse NIL collectives over the last two months. At the school’s last two home football games of the season, Neff and Swinney appeared on the video board to name-drop TigerImpact and Dear Old Clemson, the two most prominent Clemson collectives, and encourage fans to donate.
“The path we must take has never been more clear,” Neff said in a Nov. 21 video to fans, adding that Clemson collectives “need your support to help provide meaningful NIL opportunities for our student-athletes. We are doing things the right way — the Clemson way — with integrity as a non-negotiable, and we fully support the mission of these groups.”
’Earn the right’ to NIL
Vizzina, the second-highest ranked signee in Clemson’s 2023 recruiting class at No. 39 nationally behind five-star DT Peter Woods, is well aware of the opportunities in front of him in college.
But he’s more concerned about something else first: getting on the field and following in the footsteps of other well-known 21st century Clemson quarterbacks including Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, DJ Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik (whom he projects to back up in 2023).
“I have to go earn the right to get NIL deals,” Vizzina, an Alabama native, said. “The reality is nobody wants to give you a deal if you’re never gonna play. People want a national champion. They want someone that’s going to have a chance to win the Heisman. If you want the real money, that’s where the real money is.”
Vizzina said he preferred overall brand recognition over NIL potential during his recruiting process: Essentially, which programs offered the clearest path to prominence? If he became the starting quarterback at a school, would he have a shot at a championship? A Heisman Trophy? A financially lucrative NFL career that would quickly exceed any and all NIL earnings?
“There’s other schools that are going to try to tempt you and other things, but it’s the brand of Clemson,” Vizzina said. “If you’re the quarterback at Clemson, if you’re winning, then you’ll have way more (opportunity) than people that are being a backup at some school that doesn’t have a chance to win the national championship … that’s how I thought about it.”
Same for Hoffler, who said he’ll major in either business or sports communications with an emphasis on broadcasting at Clemson. Those are two NIL-friendly fields, full of opportunities he could pursue, but he’s more focused on earning his spot on the team as a summer enrollee.
In other words, he’s keeping the main thing the main thing.
“Hopefully,” Hoffler said, “everything else will take care of itself.”