SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jackson Carman was on an unofficial recruiting visit to Clemson when he noticed the guitar in coach Dabo Swinney’s office.
Swinney had gone out on his balcony, so Carman picked up the instrument. It clearly hadn’t been played in a while, so he got it back in tune. Then Carman started playing — the 1970s Kansas hit "Dust in the Wind," of all things.
"Coach Swinney, his jaw hit the floor," Carman said Thursday during Fiesta Bowl media day.
"That impressed the heck out of him," Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said.
Carman a native of Fairfield, just north of Cincinnati, downplayed the importance of that bonding moment in his eventual decision to sign with Clemson over Ohio State as a five-star offensive lineman in 2018. He and Swinney sharing a passion for guitar wasn’t going to be the decisive factor in picking a school.
But it also provided a glimpse that Carman isn’t a typical football player, and he’s unafraid to chart his own course. The expected path for a blue-chip Ohio football player is to go to Ohio State, and the Buckeyes wanted him badly.
Instead, he’ll be playing for the Tigers in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday, lined up primarily against Ohio State star Chase Young.
"It’s must-see TV," Swinney said.
To Ohio State fans, Carman is the rare player who got away. But the sophomore said the decision to go to Clemson instead of Ohio State wasn’t a difficult one.
"Everybody was surprised," Carman said. "Everyone just assumes I was going to Ohio State. Some people even thought I was already committed there, which I wasn’t, for the record.
"I was never a commit. I never flipped to any school. I was making my decision late. I wanted to be certain of my decision."
Even Clemson was surprised to have landed him. Caldwell pursued Carman, but on the player’s terms. Carman wanted a low-pressure recruitment. It helped that Caldwell had a college teammate who lived in Fairfield and that Carman’s dad had lived in South Carolina.
But until the end, Caldwell and Swinney were skeptical of their chances.
"When he called me (to commit), it’s like everybody on the staff didn’t really believe me," Caldwell said. "They’re like, ‘He ain’t leaving Ohio.’ "
But he did. The 6-foot-5, 345-pound Carman was a backup last year before stepping in as the only non-senior on the offensive line this year. He has played well, but facing Young will be challenge on a different level.
"I’m excited," Carman said. "He’s an amazing player, and I’ve been watching him since I got to college and even before that. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to be able to go against someone like him."
Carman said he has studied hours of video on Young.
"Sometimes if I can’t go to sleep, I’ll just start watching film," he said. "He’s a great physical specimen and he’s a great technical player."
Young has likewise been impressed by Carman.
"He has real good feet and real good hand placement," Young said. "I’m doing everything in my power to prepare for the things he does well."
Carman acknowledged that his technique is still developing, not surprising given his youth.
"He’s a first-year starter and I think he is good as we’ve ever had," Swinney said, "and he has the potential to be really special. He’s got his hands full Saturday, though."