The wide receiver position at Clemson has been nothing short of bountiful since 2011. Gone are the days of guys like Terrance Ashe, Xavier Dye, and Brandon Clear having to play because of lack of depth and talent. Then came the 2011 class, which featured the likes of guys like Sammy Watkins, Charone Peake, Martavis Bryant, and Adam Humphries (all of whom are currently in the NFL). Joined by Deandre Hopkins and Jaron Brown from the previous two classes, this jump started Clemson’s progression into “Wide Receiver U.”
Coming out of 2017 spring practice, the group looks as explosive as ever. Coaches have raved about the progress of Ray-Ray McCloud, and it’s easy to see why. While he had a modest four catches for 34 yards, the means in which he did so (out of the slot, on the outside and pitch sweeps) gave a peek as to the kinds of ways we could see the junior be used this year. McCloud was an interesting case. After the punt-return incident against Troy, he managed to bounce back and fill in nicely when Hunter Renfrow went down with an injury.
From an athletic standpoint, McCloud will be an upgrade over the departed Artavis Scott. This isn’t a knock against Scott, who was a great, physical possession receiver who left Clemson as one of its all-time leaders in receptions. But as good as he could run the pitch sweep, its effectiveness is that much greater in the hands of McCloud, who moves better in the open field and has the greater speed to hit the edge more quickly. It’s regrettable that he couldn’t have gotten more sweeps and pitches his way last season, but it appears the light has come on for the junior now and he’s gained more trust with the coaching staff. With his ability to receive sweeps and lineup in the backfield, McCloud could emerge as the team’s most dynamic threat in 2017.
When it comes to Deon Cain, we’ve all seen what Cain can do in the passing game with his ability to stretch the field and consistently beat single coverage. The question now becomes whether he can continue to improve his route-running and factor more into the short passing game. Without Williams or Leggett, Cain is going to become a bigger part of the red zone thanks to his 6’1” frame. Cain didn’t stand out in the spring game as much as one would have liked to see, though his experience and deeds up to this point give him a slight pass.
There’s not much to say about Renfrow that hasn’t already been stated at this point. Guy catches almost everything near him, he’s not afraid to lay out for a ball, he’s more athletic that opposing secondaries give him credit for (Just ask those Bama DBs), and he’s a flat out baller. It’ll be a shocker if he doesn’t lead the team in receptions with Scott gone.
Trevion Thompson seems like he’s destined to be the eternal No. 4/reserve receiver on the roster. He’s not flashy in any way, nor is he going to wow you with his speed. However, he is trusted by the coaching staff and does everything he’s supposed to do very well. With the youth on the roster behind the Cain/McCloud/Renfrow trio, it helps to have a veteran receiver like Thompson in the wings in case of injury.
But fans know more or less what they’re getting with these guys. The spring was important for players like Diondre Overton and Cornell Powell to make that next jump in their second year and integrate redshirt freshman TJ Chase, who could have played last year had he been physically ready.
Nevertheless, all three guys looked ready to step into the rotation behind Cain, McCloud, and Renfrow. At 6’4, Overton is the fluid athlete advertised and was the recipient of the great touchdown pass from Hunter Johnson. Based on his athletic ability, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take on the role Cain has occupied the past two season as an outside deep threat in single coverage situations. One of the best things about the touchdown catch was the way in which Overton ran through the route while fighting off the corner to make the catch, showcasing an ability to be physical off the line. Out of the three, Overton looks like the most explosive and physical of the new trio of backup receivers.
On the other side, Powell quietly led all receivers on the White Team with four receptions for 45 yards. Entering last season, it wasn’t too surprising to see Powell avoid a redshirt as he is sure-handed and consistent with catching the football. While he doesn’t have blazing speed when compared to some of the other receivers, he is shifty and elusive and does a lot of things very well. Overton and Powell each logged over a 100 snaps last season, so they know well what to expect.
TJ Chase is coming off of what was a much-needed redshirt year in which he needed to add some weight to his 165-pound frame. Weighting in the spring around 180-185, he did just that, but could stand to put on about a few more pounds to get stronger and more physical against defensive backs. While he’s not lacking for speed, the next step is continuing to polish his route running and continuing to adding a little more weight to get to the 190-195 range. Chase hauled in four receptions for 36 yards, which was second-best among receivers for the White Team, so his progression is one to keep an eye on moving forward, especially as he gets more accustomed to the offense and puts on more weight.
Exiting the spring, the wide receiver position is still going to be the most skilled part of this offense, especially given how battle tested the new starters are. The Cain/McCloud/Renfrow trio should still be as solid as the Williams/Scott/Renfrow trio was last season, especially in regards to their top-end speed and athleticism on the outside. Young guys like Overton and Powell should only get better with more time on the field, and Chase has the potential to become a factor as he becomes more acclimated to the offense. Whoever emerges out of the quarterback competition will have plenty of talent to work with.