Clemson helmet Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Recent generations of college football fans might assume that Clemson’s football dynasty didn’t start until recently under Dabo Swinney. The truth is that Clemson’s rich football tradition goes back as far as the 1930s.

Clemson’s history of producing great football players is nothing new. So let’s take a closer look at the Tigers from the past and present who shaped this program to this day.

Here is our list of the top 10 Clemson football players of all time.

10. Banks McFadden, halfback/ punter/defense

Not many people outside of South Carolina remember Banks McFadden but he played a very important part in the development of Clemson football. McFadden was a three-position athlete who played halfback, punter, and defense for the Tigers in the 1930s. Back then, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to play both ways but for someone to play three positions was still impressive. The 1939 First-team All-American also led the Tigers to their first bowl game, the 1940 Cotton Bowl, and he was the first Tiger to have his number retired. He was also the first Clemson Tiger who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Perhaps the most amazing stat is that McFadden averaged 43.5 yards per punt in 1939, a Clemson record that lasted for 40 years.

9. Bennie Cunningham, wide receiver

Bennie Cunningham was the first black Clemson football player to earn All-American honors in 1974, a year in which he had 24 catches for 391 yards and seven touchdowns. He would garner a second All-American nod the following year as well. In his three seasons with the Tigers, he amassed 1,044 yards total and 10 touchdowns. Cunningham would go on and have a great NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning two Super Bowls. He was named to the ACC 50-Year Anniversary team as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 75-Year Anniversary squad.

8. Steve Fuller, quarterback

The list of great Clemson quarterbacks started with Steve Fuller. The ACC Player of the Year in both 1977 and 1978, the only Clemson player to win that award twice. He was also named third-team All-American in 1978 and All-ACC in 1977 and 1978. In those latter years, he also led the Tigers to impressive 8-3-1 and 11-1 finishes after several losing seasons. It was the start of a run that would eventually lead to a national title a few years later. Fuller’s jersey number was retired and he went on to play in the NFL for nine seasons. He was later inducted into the Clemson Hall of Fame and the Clemson Ring of Honor.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle (72) William Perry carries the football against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XX at the Superdome.
Chicago Bears defensive tackle William Perry carries the football during Super Bowl XX at the Superdome. Credit: Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

7. Willam “The Refrigerator” Perry, defensive tackle

Before he became a culture icon with the Chicago Bears, William Perry was one of the best players in Clemson’s history. “The Fridge” was not just known for his big size but also for his big play as well. Perry was a consensus All-American in 1983 and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 when he recorded 27 tackles for loss, tied for second-most in school history. He was also a member of the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team and the first Tiger to become a three-time All-ACC team selection.

A first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears, Perry is best remembered for his play with the franchise, which includes scoring a touchdown in the Bears’ Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. For Clemson fans, however, he’ll always have a special place in their hearts. Named to Clemson’s Centennial Football Team in 1996, he is a member of the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame and South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.

Clemson's C.J. Spiller (28) is knocked out of bounds by Boston College's Kevin Akins (7).
Clemson’s C.J. Spiller (28) is knocked out of bounds by Boston College’s Kevin Akins (7).

6. C. J. Spiller, running back

C.J. Spiller was a threat every time he touched the ball. The running back could burn you running or catching the ball. Either way, defenders hated to see him coming. A First-Team All-ACC player in 2008, he really set the college world on fire the following year. In 2009, Spiller was the only FBS player to score a touchdown in every game he played. He finished the year with nearly 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns while also garnering 600 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. A finalist for the Doak Walker Award, he was named to the First-team All-ACC team, a unanimous All-American, and ACC Player of the Year.

Spiller finished fourth all-time amongst Clemson runners with 3,500 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. His combined rushing and receiving touchdowns also ranked second in school history. Spiller was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2022.

Tajh Boyd #10 of the Clemson Tigers celebrates after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 3, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Tajh Boyd of the Clemson Tigers celebrates after defeating Ohio State during the Discover Orange Bowl. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

5. Tajh Boyd, quarterback

The only reason Tajh Boyd is not higher on this list is that he didn’t lead his team to a national championship, but he accomplished just about everything else while at Clemson. Boyd is the Tigers’ all-time leading passer with 11,904 yards. He also leads school history in completions (901), touchdowns (107), and touchdown responsibility (133). In 2012, he was named ACC Player of the Year and a First-team All-American, leading the Tigers to a win over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Boys was a finalist for the Unitas and Manning Awards in 2013 when he racked up a Second-team All-ACC nod as well.

Clemson Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins (2) makes a leaping catch over Florida State Seminoles defensive back Tyler Hunter (1) during the first half of the game at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Clemson Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins makes a leaping catch over Florida State’s Tyler Hunter. Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

4. Sammy Watkins, wide receiver

Sammy Watkins may be the greatest wide receiver ever to play at Clemson. A two-time All-American, Watkins put together two thousand-yard-receiving seasons in 2011 and 2013. His 101 receptions and 1,464 receiving yards in 2013 are both school records. That came after he caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011, a year when he was named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 2012, he amassed a school-record 18 touchdowns. Watkins is the Tigers’ all-time leading receiver with 3,371 yards while his 27 touchdowns are tied for tops in school history.

Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne (9) celebrates his third touchdown with quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) during the second half against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium. Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne celebrates his third touchdown with Trevor Lawrence. Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

3, Travis Etienne, running back

You can make a strong argument that Travis Etienne is the best player to ever wear a Clemson uniform. He’s the school’s and ACC’s all-time leading rusher with 4,952 yards. Etienne’s 70 career rushing touchdowns rank in the top 10 in NCAA history. A three-time All-American and two-time ACC Player of the Year, the only reason Etienne didn’t win a Heisman in 2020 is because Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith was having his own record-breaking year. In just about any other year, Etienne would have won the Heisman. He’ll have to settle for being one of the best ACC players of all time and helping Clemson win a national title in 2018.

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers celebrates a touchdown during a game against the Florida State Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 29, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida.
Deshaun Watson of the Clemson Tigers celebrates a touchdown during a game against Florida State. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

2. Deshaun Watson, quarterback

Deshaun Watson was one of the most dynamic players in college football while there. He was a consensus All-American and ACC Player of the Year in 2015. He also won the Davey O’Brien and Manning Awards twice and helped the Tigers win the national championship in 2016. He also ranks second in school history with 10,163 passing yards and tied for second with 90 passing touchdowns. You can easily make the argument that he was the best quarterback in Clemson’s history especially after he led the Tigers to their first national championship against Alabama since the 1980s.

While Watson had a fabulous college career, many will forget how good he was because of the sexual harassment and assault allegations against him in his NFL career.

Trevor Larwrence against Notre Dame on Dec. 19, 2020.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence runs for a touchdown against Notre Dame. Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

1. Trevor Lawerence, quarterback

There are several reasons Trevor Lawrence took our No. 1 spot. Let’s start with the fact that he only lost two games as a starter (34-2), won a national title, and was named ACC Player of the Year, First-team All-American, and Heisman finalist. He also currently sits third in school history in passing yards (10,098), second in completion percentage (66.6), and is tied for second with 90 touchdowns along with Watson.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Lawerence is that he won a national championship as a freshman starting quarterback. His dominating performance against Alabama will go down as one of the best in college football history. Two years later, Lawrence was the No. 1 draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and led them to the AFC playoffs in just his second year as their starter.

About Stacey Mickles

Stacey is a 1995 graduate of the University of Alabama who has previously worked for other publications such as Sportskeeda and Saturday Down South.