HOOVER, Ala. – First impressions of Drake Grisham matched the scouting report going in.
The Spain Park (Ala.) High School sophomore looks to be the spitting image of his oldest brother, former Clemson standout receiver Tyler Grisham. The hairstyle is a bit trendier, but the eyes, nose, body type – the genetic resemblance is unmistakable.
The great irony is that Grisham’s physical similarities to Tyler at this stage in their development only amplified message board scrutiny of the Tigers’ first 2013 commitment.
He is significantly shorter (5-foot-8) and slighter (150 pounds) than your prototypical major college prospect, not to mention younger. And that’s avoiding the race issue.
Yet months before Grisham has entertained getting his driver’s permit, the 15-year-old had already landed a scholarship offer, pledging to coach Dabo Swinney during his annual participation in Clemson’s summer camp in mid-June.
“It adds a little pressure when you’re committed somewhere, to show that you’re good and deserving of it,” Grisham said.
“(Tyler) didn’t really believe it at first,” he added with a smile.
Neither did Grisham, for that matter.
The peculiar tale of his recruitment renders two conclusions: one a postulation, the other a supposition.
The Grisham family is fans of Swinney, and vice versa.
Because of that bond, Grisham will invariably -- and however unfairly -- have to prove to skeptics he didn’t get a scholarship solely based on his bloodlines – that, more precisely, he instead accurately reminded Clemson’s coach of Tyler as a player, if not Swinney himself.
The Tide that binds
The connection traces back to when Swinney served as the receivers coach at Alabama.
The family’s father, Jim, had grown to be friends with Swinney’s brother, Tracy – a policeman in Pelham. Swinney had to stop by the Grisham house en route to a golf tournament when he began playing toss with Tyler, then a third-grader.
The Grishams were Tennessee fans because of the family roots there. But Tyler began going to Alabama’s summer football camp at age 8 because of the Swinney connection.
Swinney went so far as to sign a hat for Tyler with the inscription “To Tyler, a future Tider!”
Swinney was let go when Alabama dismissed Mike Dubose after the 2000 season, then joined Tommy Bowden’s Clemson staff as receivers coach two years later. In tandem, Tyler began attending Clemson’s summer camp instead.
When Tyler participated before his senior prep season (2004), several other members of the Tigers’ staff put stopwatches on his timed tests, if only to be arbiters in their grand dilemma.
Ultimately, Bowden elected to offer Tyler, then listed as 5-11, 183 pounds, a scholarship midway through camp in order to prevent him from leaving early to attend Tennessee’s camp. Tyler’s only other scholarship offers were William & Mary and Samford (but Auburn called after seeing him in an all-star game after his senior season).
Tyler started the final 2 ½ seasons of his Clemson career (2005-08) and finished ranked 12th in school history in catches (132) and 18th in yardage (1,390), serving as the complement to record-holder Aaron Kelly.
He is in his second year as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ NFL practice squad, having been an active member of the Steelers’ roster for four games last season.
That was Tyler’s career in a nutshell. It is essential background.
Swinney, a former 165-pound walk-on receiver at Alabama with more than his share of experiences overcoming adversities and typecasts, clearly related.
“Tyler is a young man that holds a dear spot in my heart,” Swinney said in the school’s magazine program feature story about Tyler last year. “He is a guy that if I was going to start a football team and you said you have five guys to start a team, he'd be one of those for sure.”
In the meeting where Tyler was offered his scholarship, Jim Grisham told Tommy Bowden that Swinney was the main reason his son was coming to Clemson. Bowden simply and prophetically replied that Swinney would be a head coach some day.
For those who think Drake’s scholarship offer is based on relationship alone, there is one substantial piece of evidence to the contrary.
The middle brother, Garrett – sandwiched four years younger than Tyler and four older than Drake – did not land at Clemson.
Coincidentally enough, though, Garrett – the shortest of the trio (5-6) and having dealt with a pair of knee injuries during his prep career – has earned a scholarship as a preferred walk-on receiver at FCS powerhouse North Alabama coached by Tommy Bowden’s brother, Terry.
Drake began attending Clemson’s summer camps at least five years ago as a rising sixth-grader.
He has spent most of the last three camps competing up in the high school seniors age group.
Grisham was going through camp drills as usual when Swinney told him he would have a spot on Clemson’s team if he wanted it.
It didn’t dawn on Grisham that he’d received a committable offer until Swinney’s youngest son, 7-year-old Clay, put two and two together for him.
“So I walked back up to (Swinney) and told him I was all-in,” Grisham said. “It was pretty cool.”
Through four prep games this season, he has registered six catches for 44 yards, including three for 18 yards in his first start of the year last Friday night.
Spain Park interim coach Ben Berguson said there are mitigating circumstances for those statistics, such as the fact the Jaguars – playing in one of the top 6A conferences in the state -- haven’t thrown much this year while grooming a sophomore quarterback.
“We very seldom have a sophomore start for us at a school like Spain Park,” Berguson said. “That just proves what kind of athletic ability Drake has.
“Look at the pedigree he comes from.”
Trouble is, those around Grisham realize that’s all Clemson fans and recruiting analysts have to go on until shown otherwise, for better or worse.
During summers, the Grisham sons work out locally at RPM, a training facility owned by former UAB receiver Lance Rhodes. Participating clients typically include NFL receiver Roddy White (UAB product and Charleston native) as well as NFL linebacker Reggie Torbor and NFL backup quarterback John Parker Wilson.
Rhodes believes the only thing separating Grisham from his eldest brother is size – and Tyler hit his growth spurt as a sophomore, coincidentally. Grisham actually owns the facility’s fastest recorded time in the pro shuttle, which measures short-area quickness. To that end, Drake earned the nickname “Snake” from his trainees.
“I’m sure people are probably asking why you offer a sophomore who doesn’t have all the stats yet,” Rhodes said. “If he played in a high school division that wasn’t as good, he probably would.
“He’s strong as an ox and his flexibility is as high as it can be for his age. He’s quick and, like Tyler, I think his linear speed will come as he matures and grows into his body. And technique-wise, he’s very advanced. He can be everything Tyler is.”