In our season preview, the wide receiver position was the one group which we felt was both rich in talent and depth. The 2015 season tested both assertions on the first drive of the year when Mike Williams flew headfirst into the goalpost. After a few spotty performances early without a favorable matchup downfield, the assertions held true and Clemson enjoyed solid -- if not spectacular -- wide receiver play for the large majority of the year.
For a refresher on the specific receiver positions and their terminology, consult the chart below. In Clemson's offense, the 2 is field (wide side) receiver, the 5 is next to him in the slot, and the 9 is in the boundary (short side of the field). The 3 is the tight end which may be split wide like in the chart below, tight on the line, or in the backfield as an H-back in Clemson's offense thanks to Jordan Leggett's versatility. The tight end was covered earlier this week, so here our focus remains on the 2, 5, and 9 spots.
Boundary Receiver (9)
Mike Williams: 2 rec, 20 yards, 1 TD
Williams entered the season the clear #1 target and downfield threat, perfectly suited to fill the 9 role with his elite size and ball skills. It was to be his last year at Clemson before he would depart for the NFL, but a broken neck on the first drive of the season put everything on hold. In addition to the loss of its best receiver, Williams' injury forced Clemson to reshuffle its lineup and move Charone Peake from the slot to the boundary. Early returns were, uh, less than stellar, but by midseason this spot was no longer a concern. Williams technically redshirted, but in all likelihood will classify himself a senior for 2016.
Charone Peake: 50 rec, 716 yards, 5 TD
Peake lost nearly two full years due to injury in 2013 and 2014, and was finally healthy enough to present a wonderful mismatch in the slot thanks to his solid size and outstanding speed. The Williams injury forced Peake into the boundary role, which did not perfectly mesh with his skill set. Peake labored through growing pains and drew much ire for lack of aggression in jump ball situations, which inflated Watson's interception total. Ultimately, Peake improved as he adjusted and became a reliable target along the sideline, where he made more than a handful of long catches on go routes.
Perhaps Peake's most impressive contributions came in his fantastic perimeter blocking, which sprung long runs against Georgia Tech and Miami. I say this not to knock his contributions catching the ball -- he improved tremendously over the course of the season -- but because his perimeter blocking was BEAUTIFUL. Peake overcame my early doubts and proved himself worthy of the 9 role and co-captaincy with Eric Mac Lain. Dbbm did a great piece on his blocking, which I encourage you to read here.
Deon Cain: 34 rec, 582 yards, 5 TD
Cain earned a handful of snaps early, but by midseason became the Tigers' top downfield threat with his wonderful blend of size, speed, and balls skills. He tore through the end of the regular season before he got himself suspended for the final two games -- in both of which Clemson didn't stretch the field like they would have with Cain available. Cain will return in 2016 if he matures like expected.
Field Receiver (2)
Artavis Scott: 90 rec, 901 yards, 6 TD
Scott essentially serves as Clemson's perimeter running back, but he showed far more versatility this season with touchdowns on deep balls and slants. Scott is extremely powerful in the upper body and was almost never tackled on first contact. He nearly duplicated his totals from last season, although his touchdown number dropped from 8 to 6. With Williams across from him, I felt that Scott would have far more room to operate underneath; however, without a downfield passing attack for the first few games, Scott found his task underneath far more laborious than originally hoped. Expect it to change next year with Williams and Cain rotating at boundary.
Ray Ray McCloud: 29 rec, 251 yards, 1 TD
An injury against Florida State halted his steady progression, but even when healthy he found little room underneath and went down far too easily. Although he showed ELITE burst, Ray Ray needs to spend the offseason adding weight in order to contribute underneath like Scott does. With added strength to go along with his quickness, we will see McCloud much more involved in the gameplan.
Slot Receiver (5)
Hunter Renfrow: 33 rec, 452 yards, 5 TD
Who predicted this? A walk-on who earned his scholarship, pushed for playing time, and eventually took the nation by storm in the postseason. Without a doubt the most pleasant surprise of the entire position group, Renfrow showed the most reliable hands underneath and made highlight after highlight downfield. It seemed every downfield throw to Renfrow was either a touchdown or pass interference, and that's the sign of an athlete with exceptional smarts and route-running skills. We have three more years to behold this gem of a player.
Germone Hopper: 21 rec, 317 yards, 1 TD
Time to eat a bit crow, I labeled Hopper the odd man out with the influx of talent behind him and the established stars ahead of him. Hopper was inconsistent both on the field (drops) and off the field (behavior) in his first three years; he rebounded and contributed well enough as the primary backup at both the 2 and the 5, but did not do enough to keep hold of the starting spot at 5 when Peake moved to 9 to replace Wililams. Hopper will likely serve as the backup at 5 again, but is more than capable to step in at 2 with Scott and McCloud if needed like he did this year. He was a valuable member of the rotation thanks to his improved hands (focus) and ability to play two roles.
Clemson's receiver group -- as a whole -- stepped up for the loss of Williams. Scott was steady and bullish as always, Renfrow reliable yet stunning, and the true freshmen were brought along at the appropriate pace. The emergence of Cain led to the outstanding tear of production and yardage from the entire offense, since the missing component early was a reliable downfield receiver. Cain's progression and Peake's improvement filled that role, and the offense became unstoppable. Despite the loss of its top talent on the year's opening drive, the receiver group had enough talent and depth to more than pull its own weight in one of the most balanced and successful offenses in the country.
For 2016, Clemson's receiver group should be even better than it was in 2014 and 2015; it won't quite rival the talent level of the fabled 2012 group which included DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, and Adam Humphries, but it will be no less deadly as part of a complete and balanced offense. Williams and Cain will terrorize secondaries from the boundary. Scott and McCloud should benefit from the downfield threats to do far more damage underneath and along the perimeter, while at slot Renfrow and Hopper have the quickness to work against linebackers, nickels, and safeties. That's as good a two-deep as you'll find anywhere at the collegiate level, and when thrown in with the returnees among the rest of the offense...it's not even fair.