Raiders hoping injection of Clemson culture leads to berth of 'New Raiders'

Raiders hoping injection of Clemson culture leads to berth of 'New Raiders'

Two thousand five hundred and ninety-four miles separate Clemson, South Carolina, and Oakland, California.

The gap between the Raiders and Dabo Swinney's Tigers feels even larger.

Since Swinney had the interim head coach title lifted at the end of the 2008 season, he has transformed Clemson into college football royalty. Since 2009. Clemson is 112-27. The Tigers have won seven ACC Atlantic Division titles, five conference championships and two national titles in that span.

Swinney is an ace recruiter, yes. But the growth of the program from college football punch line to standard-setter comes from the culture Swinney has created, nurtured and grown in Death Valley.

"Well I wanted to build a culture of toughness, of commitment, but more importantly I wanted to build a culture that serves our players' hearts and not their talents," Swinney told NBC Sports Bay Area. "A culture that truly used the game of football to build men and to impact our players' lives and to equip them with the tools that they need, not just on the field but off the field as well.

"That’s what we set out to do. You build a culture and you change a culture, in my world, through graduation and through recruiting. "

That culture is partly what attracted the Raiders -- who have won one playoff game in 16 years -- to draft three of Swinney's players in this year's NFL draft. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock set their sights on a trio of Tigers -- Clelin Ferrell, Hunter Renfrow and Trayvon Mullen -- who are not only talented players but come from the kind of culture the Silver and Black hope to build following last season's 4-12 record.

Swinney had lead Clemson to the top of the college football food chain with a charm, swagger and jovial nature that makes it easy to see why players like Ferrell, Renfrow and Mullen chose to spend their formative years under Swinney's detail-oriented eye. They chose to be shaped in an intense cauldron that demands the best of them rather than starring at programs with less structure and accountability.

To quote Jon Hamm in "The Town," Clemson is the definition of "the not-f--king around crew."

"I always say fit first, ability second," Swinney said when discussing his approach to recruiting for culture. "It’s easy to see if a guy can play or not, it’s a lot tougher to see if he’s the right fit. Because not everybody is a good fit for our culture and who we are. And the way we do things. Because this place is tough man, this is no-nonsense. Not everybody values education the way we do. Not everybody values discipline and accountability the way we do."

[LISTEN: Full interview with Swinney on The Raiders Insider Podcast]

Accountability. Trust. Maturity. Competitiveness. Talent. All are things Swinney focuses on, and all are things the Raiders have praised their three rookies for.

"They know how to win," Gruden said of the Clemson trio after Day 4 of training camp. "They know how to prepare. They know how to listen, and they know how to compete and they expect to win. They are not intimidated. They are quality people. I can trust them on a player's night. I can trust them ... with just about everything."

Gruden's return to Oakland last offseason gave way to wide-sweeping roster changes that saw him remake the Raiders into what he believes is a team that can compete for a playoff spot. Gruden and Mayock have talked about molding this team into something resembling the tough Raiders of yesteryear.

But trying to replicate the present or the past is antithetical to the Clemson DNA already instilled in Gruden's rookies. It runs in stark contrast to the culture Swinney built in Death Valley, where the goal is to create the standard for excellence, not meet someone else's.

"For me, I feel like a championship mindset is the same at every level," Ferrell told the media after Day 3 of camp. "Even though in the NFL the play rises, the biggest thing is it starts with the culture, the foundation. That's the biggest thing. You got to do the common things in an uncommon way. Everybody is out here practicing, you can't just go out here and just practice. You got to do it in a way that makes yourself better and do it in a way where you elevate yourself above others.

"It ain't just about winning. It's about how you win. We're not just about winning one championship. You want to do stuff to make it last. Multiple teams have won Super Bowls, right? But if I ask you who the greatest dynasty ever? You'll have your own opinion about it. Because you know one team has been consistent, done things the right way and that's how we want to be here. We not trying to be like the Raiders of the old, even though they set the standard. But this time right here, we want to elevate that. We want to set our own new heights, have a chance to be better than those guys.

"Everybody keep talking like, 'Make it like the old Raiders,'" Ferrell continued. "How about we set the standard for the new Raiders? And that everybody wants to be like us. Somebody asked me the other day, 'They brought you in here, how you going to make us like the Patriots of the day? The Seahawks or the Rams of the day?' I thought about something my coach in college told me. I was like, 'I don't want us to be like them at all. I want the Patriots of the world -- I want the Seahawks, the Cowboys, those guys to be like us. I want them to say, 'Dang, I want to do it how they do it. Because they built to last.'"

The idea to become the gold standard was a vision Swinney always had in his mind as a cornerstone for the team culture he would build if he was given a head-coaching job.

“I’ve always had a clear vision," Swinney told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I think to be good at anything, you've got to have a vision for it. I’ve always had a vision if one day I got to be a head coach how I would want to do it. And the type of program that I would want to run. From Day 1, that was my message to my first team. ‘Listen, we don’t want to be like someone else. Let’s build the model program.'

"That’s the most gratifying thing to me is we’ve become -- we’ve eight 10-plus win seasons in a row, only us and Alabama, eight out of my 10 years we’ve been top 10 academically -- we’ve become incredibly consistent along the way, but that was something that we sought out to do, we wanted to become the model program and we wanted to do it the Clemson way."

During their three years together at Clemson, Ferrell, Renfrow and Mullen helped lead the Tigers to a 41-3 record and two College Football Playoff National Championships. That winning pedigree certainly was a factor in the Raiders' plan to use the Tigers' triumvirate as the foundation for their future.

While winning titles is the ultimate goal, Clemson taught Renfrow that capturing championships starts with achieving small goals first.

"Just the little things," Renfrow said. "It's really not about winning the Super Bowl, it's about getting collective goals as a team and trying to go accomplish those. So I know at Clemson we wanted to win the opener, win the division, we had like five goals that would lead us to a national championship. So same thing here, we just want to accomplish our goals and get better on the practice field every single day.

"... If we can have competition every single day and feel like we are going up against the best then at the end of the day we're going to get on the field on Sundays and we're not going to be overwhelmed, and we're just going to go out there and have fun because we know we are prepared."

Renfrow, who caught the game-winning touchdown with one second left in the 2017 title game, knows how special the culture was at Clemson.

"It was just a belief that we were going to do what it takes to win," Renfrow said. "Everyone knew what it took and just had a genuine care for one another. It starts with coach Swinney, he does a great job of that and coach Gruden does as well. He really values the guys on his team."

Mullen echoed the idea of the team, not just the coaches, caring for one another being an important factor in developing that championship mentality.

"At Clemson, we had a lot of good people," Mullen said. "The culture, it all starts with the players first, all coming together and wanting to achieve one goal of going to the Super Bowl. Just loving each other, playing with each other, just creating that family atmosphere."

[RELATED: Exclusive: Dabo explains what makes Raiders rookies special]

Aside from a talented quarterback, to be successful in today's NFL you need a pass rusher, a lockdown cornerback, a slot receiver who can make drive-extending catches and a winning locker room culture.

By drafting Ferrell, Mullen and Renfrow -- three champions who were forged and molded in the Clemson cauldron -- the Raiders look to check every box and inject some of Swinney's unique formula into the Silver and Black.

Swinney, after all, doesn't mind if his ethos escapes Death Valley.

"I tell our players we’re not trying to keep all this here," Swinney said. "You take it with you. Take it with into your careers, your marriages, your churches, your communities and if you get a chance to go to the NFL, take it to your next locker room. You know what it looks like. Take it with you.

"And I know that those guys will do just that. And they’ll buy into the way they want to do things there and they’ll do it with great commitment and accountability and you know keep those core values that have made them successful."

Those core values helped mold Clemson into the crown jewel of college football, and Gruden hopes they will be the foundation for a new age of Raider football.

Raiders' playoff hopes rest on these five players not named Derek Carr

Raiders' playoff hopes rest on these five players not named Derek Carr

The Raiders entered the 2020 offseason with a checklist of holes to fill and positions to upgrade. They damn near did it all.

Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock spent most of their free agency dollars improving a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA in 2020. They added talent to all three levels, giving defensive coordinator Paul Guenther his most-talented unit to date. In the draft, the Raiders stacked talent on talent, focusing mainly on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards and running back Lynn Bowden will all be welcome additions to an offense that lacked the ability to create explosive plays in 2019.

The Silver and Black injected talent into their roster at key positions and look to be a much better team than the one that went 7-9 last season. An improved defense coupled with a more explosive offense and an extra playoff spot should give the Raiders hope for a postseason berth in 2020.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

But in order to do so, they'll need some of their key members -- not named Derek Carr -- to stay healthy and have big seasons to make that dream a reality.

Honorable Mentions: Henry Ruggs and Cornerback No. 2

Big things are expected from Ruggs. You don't get drafted with the No. 12 overall pick just to fly in under the radar. But receivers often struggle in their first season in the NFL and Gruden's offense is one of the more complex units in the league to grasp.

There's no doubt the Raiders will find ways to get the ball into Ruggs' hands as much as possible, but it might take a few weeks for the speedy receiver to find his footing in the NFL.

As for the other honorable mention, it belongs to what is perhaps the Raiders' biggest question mark. Whoever wins the cornerback job opposite Trayvon Mullen will have to be able to hold down their side of the field. Last season, the Raiders got virtually nothing from Daryl Worley at that position and their past defense suffered because of the gaping hole on that side of the field.

Getting production from Prince Amukamara, Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson or Isaiah Johnson is paramount for the Raiders to contend for a playoff spot.

5. Johnathan Abram

We don't know exactly what to expect from Abram, who missed all but one game during his rookie season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. But the Raiders need him to be healthy and to play an important role in the back end in order to keep the defense together.

Abram's injury in the Raiders' Week 1 win over the Denver Broncos was a bigger blow than most realize. Without sufficient depth at the position, the Raiders secondary struggled with communication and was burned too many times to count. Erik Harris eventually filled the role adequately, but once Karl Joseph went down in Week 10, the Raiders' secondary was unable to recover.

Abram is a physical safety who we expect to play more in the box, letting Damarious Randall handle the deep safety duties. But Abram must harness that aggression, play under control, stay healthy and give the Raiders 16 solid games if they are to make the playoffs. The defense has been rebuilt, but losing Abram again would be a hard loss to overcome.

4. Trent Brown

In a 2019 class of splashy free-agent signings that didn't pan out, Trent Brown was the lone Raiders home run.

Brown's first season in silver and black was a roaring success. He was named to the Pro Bowl and, when he was healthy and active, the Raiders' offensive line was as strong a unit as there is in the NFL. Brown allowed only one sack and registered a 77.8 pass-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus.

But multiple injuries ailed Brown and he eventually had to go on season-ending injured reserve due to a torn pectoral muscle. All told, Brown played 582 snaps for the Raiders, about 57 percent of the team's total. He missed six games and was hobbled in at least two that he suited up for.

When healthy, Brown is as good a right tackle as there is in football. The Raiders need him to be 100 percent in 2020 for the line to function at optimal capacity.

3. Clelin Ferrell

We know all about Ferrell's rookie season. The No. 4 overall pick battled an illness around midseason that forced him to lose weight and he spent the rest of the season trying to get back to his ideal playing weight.

He played inside and outside. He was a good run defender but notched just 4.5 sacks, a low number for the No. 4 overall pick. Ferrell vowed to return a different player in 2020. He's a hard worker who is filled with talent. The Raiders got great production off the edge from Maxx Crosby in 2019 and signed Carl Nassib to join the rotation for 2020. But Ferrell is the most talented player in the rotation and the Raiders need him to play as such.

His value won't be judged on sack totals, as that's often misleading. But Ferrell must increase hit pressure numbers in 2020. During his rookie season, Ferrell notched just 18 pressures and three hits. Those numbers must increase in 2020 for Guenther's unit to go from awful to average during the first season in Las Vegas.

The addition of Maliek Collins up front should help Ferrell improve his production and put the Clemson product in a more stable role on the edge.

2. Tyrell Williams

Big things are expected of Ruggs, but the rookie can't be expected to be a top receiver from Day 1. It will take time.

That's where Williams comes in.

Before the plantar fasciitis flared up, Williams looked to be worth every penny the Raiders spent on him. In the first two weeks, Williams caught 11 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. But he didn't go over 100 yards after Week 1 and had just two games with more than three catches after Week 2.

His feet were an issue, there is no doubt.

The Raiders need Williams to be healthy and productive from the jump in 2020 to take the pressure off Ruggs as he settles in. Williams has shown he can be a solid No. 2 receiver with the ability to level up at times. He went over 1,000 yards with the then-San Diego Chargers in 2016 after injuries forced him to become the No. 1 option.

Carr and Williams have good chemistry and it will be imperative for the offense that the veteran receiver is the player he was in Week 1 of 2019 for all of 2020.

[RELATED: Carr primed for career year after Raiders restock arsenal]

1. Cory Littleton

After years of toiling in linebacker hell, the Raiders went out and welded the hole shut by signing Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski.

Littleton was the big fish of the Raiders' offseason. He's an athletic, three-down linebacker who can cover tight ends and run sideline-to-sideline with running backs. That's something the Raiders haven't had and they've been scorched because of it.

Adding Littleton and, to a lesser extent, Kwiatkoski, gives the Raiders the ability to defend modern NFL offenses like the ones they'll face in the AFC West. The Silver and Black have been at a disadvantage playing without athletic linebackers and have been exploited time and time again.

Littleton is in the prime of his career and he has all the tools the Raiders need to field a defense that won't be gutted every time it takes the field.

He needs to be as advertised in 2020.

NFL odds: Raiders' Josh Jacobs a favorite to score first Las Vegas TD


NFL odds: Raiders' Josh Jacobs a favorite to score first Las Vegas TD

The Raiders’ home opener in Las Vegas is scheduled for Sept. 21 on “Monday Night Football” against the New Orleans Saints.

Which player will score the first regular-season touchdown at Allegiant Stadium?

You can bet on that proposition at the Westgate sportsbook, which posted odds on 18 players.

“They always talk about things that are established years later. Trivia-type things, like who was the player that scored the first touchdown at the stadium in Las Vegas,” Westgate vice president of risk Jeff Sherman said. ” We just wanted a wagering option similar to that.”

The Saints are 4½-point favorites over the Raiders, and the total is 50½ points.

[RELATED: Raiders' three key camp battles]

New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara is the 5-1 favorite to score the first TD, Saints wideout Michael Thomas is the 6-1 second choice, and Las Vegas running back Josh Jacobs is the 8-1 third pick.