When Tre Williams made his official visit to Clemson University last winter, the football program checked every box for him. The blue-chip defensive tackle, from St. John's College High School in the District of Columbia, knew about the two-time defending national champion's tradition at his position. He loved the campus and the facilities. He felt the Tigers had recruited him harder than any other school, and as he neared a decision, he knew he might have a chance to see the field early in his college career.
But there was something else in the back of his mind, a small-but-very important question he needed to ask: Would he be able to wear jersey No. 8?
It was far from the clinching factor in his commitment, but it was significant nonetheless. Clemson coaches told Williams he probably would be able to don his favorite number, should it be available. His beloved digit is already occupied by standout junior defensive back, A.J. Terrell, but it would become free for Williams as a freshman should Terrell jump into the NFL draft in the offseason.
"It's definitely a small feat," Williams said, "to wear a single-digit number as a defensive lineman."
As he prepares to lock in his scholarship with the Tigers during Wednesday's early signing day, Williams will not only help bolster one of the country's top recruiting classes, but also will join a college football fashion trend that has only become more popular over the past decade. Single digit numbers, at one time reserved for quarterbacks and other playmakers who spend more time in the spotlight, are now worn by many of the best defensive linemen in the country - and have become a quirky part of the recruiting process for some prospects.
"Getting the jersey number they want has always been something college coaches have used as a recruiting tool," said Adam Friedman, an analyst for the recruiting service Rivals. "If a kid can't get his jersey number at a certain school, it's something they can't get at that one school that maybe they could get at another school. Coaches that are able to make that work, it's just another tool in their arsenal."
Making it work can be tricky for college coaches, who oversee teams with more than 100 players and often add recruiting classes with more than 20 prospects. Most college football teams must dole out duplicate uniform numbers to offensive and defensive players — those players cannot be on the field at the same time — to accommodate everyone, and most single-digit numbers are still worn by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs.
The recent increase in big men requesting single digits — popularized by players like former South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney and Ohio State's Heisman finalist Chase Young - has complicated that further. Defensive linemen are often some of the most coveted players on the recruiting trail, leaving college football coaches to battle it out to earn their commitments however they can. More and more, a jersey numbered 1 through 9 can serve as something of a sweetener.
Williams himself followed in the footsteps of his cousin, Nigel Williams, who wore No. 8 as a defensive tackle at Virginia Tech. Three of the teams in this year's college football playoff — Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State — have defensive linemen that wear a single digit.
"When they see guys like that, players they look up to, players they try to emulate wearing a single digit, that's something that they want to do also," Friedman said. "It's like, 'why do basketball players always want to wear the number 23?' Well it's because Michael Jordan wore No. 23."
Or, as Williams puts it: "You look good, you play good."
Some college programs reward single digits for play on the field — at places such as Notre Dame, Hawaii and Temple, the coveted numbers must be earned through a merit system — and the movement has trickled down to the high school ranks. At Archbishop Carroll in Washington, Coach Robert Harris rewarded one of his defensive ends with the request to wear No. 8 last season after he earned all-conference honors.
Other programs have grappled with how to handle such requests; at IMG Academy, one of the country's premier programs, the No. 1 is off-limits because its considered a team number. But coaches have at times allowed defensive linemen to wear a single digit.
"It's a trendy thing. You definitely see that," said IMG coach Kevin Wright, who has seen the craze become a part of the recruitment of defensive linemen more and more over the years. More than a dozen of the top 100 defensive linemen in the country wore single digits in high school this season, and have decorated their social media accounts with photos of themselves wearing single-digits on recruiting visits, including at Florida, Auburn and Kentucky, among others.
For 2021 prospect Quintin Somerville of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, who is rated as one of the top defensive ends in his class, he began wearing No. 9 in elementary school because he idolized former North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb, who now plays for the Denver Broncos. Despite the fact the he knew he would play in the trenches, Somerville was determined to keep the number. When he went on a Michigan visit last year, his No. 9 uniform in maize and blue was waiting for him in the team's locker room. "It was incredible," he said.
It's not a conversation Somerville has had often with coaches throughout his recruiting process — he also holds offers from LSU, Ohio State and Auburn, among others — but he knows that wearing a single digit will come up as he nears his commitment date.
"It kind of creates an aura for that player, I guess. You think speed when you see that single-digit number," Somerville said. "If you're that big guy and you're wearing a single-digit number, people are going to be attracted to you. I guess it is like a badge."