The streets of Phenix City, Ala. (population: 32,822), aren’t normally the place to find Clemson orange. Phenix City is 30-something miles from Auburn, and that’s where local legend Tim Hudson played his baseball before he pitched in the majors. Phenix City is a good 180 miles from Tuscaloosa, but the University of Alabama has such a hold on the entire state that it’s hardly surprising a College Football Hall of Famer — say, linebacker Woodrow Lowe — would have found his way to the Crimson Tide. Shoot, Phenix City sits just across the border from Columbus, Ga., so the pull of the Bulldogs could be strong, too.
And yet, here comes Phenix City’s own Justyn Ross.
“I’ve actually got a lot of people back home wearing Clemson now,” Ross said.
Orange amid the Crimson. That meant something on signing day, back in February, when Ross wore a red bow tie to a news conference — his Phenix City Central team is the Red Devils, after all — but pulled on a white hat bearing an orange tiger paw. He would go not to Alabama, not to Auburn, not even to Georgia. He would go to Clemson.
“It was a lot of people disappointed,” Ross said.
In the modern college football world, being from Alabama and going to Clemson doesn’t just mean bucking the conventional wisdom and the gravitational pull of the twin in-state death stars of Alabama and Auburn. It is, rather, jumping off one speeding train traveling north in favor of the other speeding train traveling south. A collision is inevitable. Just pick the car you prefer.
The Tigers and Tide meet up annually now, with their fourth straight matchup in the College Football Playoff set for Monday night in Santa Clara, Calif. Nothing short of the national title is at stake.
“It’s like they should be a part of our regular schedule,” Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “It’s almost like they’re in our conference or something.”
Because of that relationship — because Alabama beat Clemson for the national title in 2016, and Clemson avenged that loss in 2017, and the Tide pulled back in a semifinal victory over the Tigers in 2018 — a kid from Phenix City, Ala., can’t make a decision to travel four hours northeast to Clemson, S.C., and have there be not only shock but maybe real ramifications.
Ross wasn’t some throwaway. A 6-foot-4 wide receiver, he had a scholarship offer from Alabama. And another from Auburn. Rivals and ESPN both ranked Ross as Alabama’s top player.
Alabama’s top player is leaving the state?
To get an idea of how unusual this is, check the Rivals rankings over the years. This isn’t a Bible, but it’s certainly a guideline. Before Ross committed to Clemson in February, the last top-ranked player in Alabama to bypass Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide was quarterback Jameis Winston, who played his final game for Hueytown in the fall of 2011.
Winston went to Florida State instead, won both a Heisman Trophy and a national championship and became the first overall choice in the NFL draft. Solid decision-making.
But he is the outlier. In the next five recruiting classes — those five between Winston and Ross — 17 of the 25 players Rivals ranked in the top five in Alabama went to Tuscaloosa. The other eight went to Auburn. Heck, in 2014, the top 11 players in the state signed with one or the other. For an out-of-state school to cross the border and escape with an Alabama player, well, it’s as if there’s a wall there, and the borders are secure, and somehow the funding’s been taken care of . . .
Enough of that. The point is: Alabama players stay home to play for Alabama. Unless they play for Auburn.
Unless they’re Justyn Ross.
“We thought he was one of the best players in Alabama a year ago and certainly recruited him with as much enthusiasm as possible,” Saban said on a teleconference with reporters this week. “We just came up short.”
Came up short. Saban’s last four Alabama teams are a combined 55-3. You hardly ever hear him say the Tide came up short on the field. You hardly ever hear him say the Tide came up short in recruiting.
Why, then, did Ross put the Tide in such a position?
“Just the different type of culture that they have there,” Ross said of Clemson. “And it was more a family and more coaching stability.”
Aaaah, now, here’s a point that Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney — and others who dare recruit against Goliath . . . er, Saban — might want to jump on. Or, more accurately, have already jumped on.
This year, Michael Locksley was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator. Except he’s leaving to become the head coach at Maryland. In 2017, Locksley shared the job with Brian Daboll, but then Daboll left to be the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills. Before that, Lane Kiffin held the position, but he left/was run out on rails and ended up as the head coach at Florida Atlantic. The leading figure on offense has been a whirling around a roulette wheel.
The Tide had amazing consistency on the other side of the ball because Kirby Smart was Saban’s defensive coordinator from 2008 to 2015. But when the Tide played for last year’s national title, Smart was staring back at them across the field — as Georgia’s coach. His replacement, Jeremy Pruitt, is now the head coach at Tennessee.
Saban has been masterful at promoting his assistants and allowing them to go on to bigger and better things. But here, in Justyn Ross, was an Alabama kid who looked at all that movement and, presumably, listened to the whispers from Clemson’s staff.
Pssssst. Our offensive co-coordinators, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott? They both went to Clemson. Elliott has coached here since 2011, Scott since 2008.
And so, in the hours before Alabama beat Oklahoma in one national semifinal, Ross helped Clemson carve up Notre Dame in the other. He caught six balls (a career high) for 148 yards (a career high) and two touchdowns (another career high). At a program that bills itself as “Wide Receiver University,” he would have fit right in — if he didn’t stand out so much.
“He’s a great vertical threat,” Saban said. “He’s a big target. He’s very crafty for a guy that is just a freshman.”
He is an impact player on the one team that can have a huge impact on the program from his home state. He knows both where he’s from and where he is.
“You’re going to see a lot of Alabama stuff at home,” Ross said. “But I’m going to still wear my Clemson.”
Clemson orange in a sea of Crimson. That’s Justyn Ross in Phenix City, Ala., and Justyn Ross in the Tide secondary Monday night. Comfortable in either place, even if he’s an outlier in both.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.