Wide receiver is a tough position to preview this year. The wide receiver roster is loaded with talent, but the talent is unproven (with one obvious exception). You’ll see a bunch of absurd preseason “best WR groups in the nation” lists with Clemson outside of the top 5 in the nation, but just ignore those prognostications. Clemson has an absolute embarrassment of riches, and depending on how the quarterback situation shakes out, Clemson may have the best WR group in the nation in the 18/19 season when all is said and done.
Clemson has to replace 2 of 3 starting receivers from last year’s squad, with boundary (or 9) receiver Deon Cain and field (or 2) receiver Ray Ray McCloud both leaving a year early for the NFL. While Cain and McCloud both possess unquestionable talent, Clemson is in a great position to upgrade both positions (at least statistically) in the 2018 season.
Clemson Wide Receiver Roster
The first order of business is to remind everyone how Clemson labels the different wide receiver positions.
This is Clemson’s base “11” personnel, with 3 WRs (9,2,5) a TE/H-Back (3) and a single back (4). I attempted to break this preview up into the 9 (boundary), 2 (field), and 5 (slot) positions. Clemson cross trains players at multiple positions, Trevion Thompson, for example, can play both the 9 and the 5, but I tried to put them in the position where I think they will take the most snaps.
Boundary Wide Receiver (9):
Starter - Tee Higgins - #5
Higgins is the key to the Clemson attack this year. The 5* WR from Tennessee had a somewhat disappointing freshman campaign. He looked great when he was on the field, but he wasn’t on the field much until the end of the season. His only good game against Power 5 competition came against South Carolina, where he put up 84 yards on 3 receptions. Further integrating Higgins into the offense for the Sugar Bowl was a coaching staff focus, but all that work went up in smoke when Higgins sprained his ankle late in bowl prep and reinjured it in the first half against Alabama.
While Higgins didn’t get off to the start he was looking for as a freshman, he looks like a cheat code coming into his Sophomore year. He dominated the spring game, recording 4 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Defensive backs can do everything right and Higgins can still make the catch because no one can jump with him. If the pass is placed in the correct place, the only question is whether the DB will take the pass interference or allow the catch. If you were told to design the perfect boundary wide receiver, you would end up with a picture of Tee Higgins.
That said, there is one big question surrounding Higgins. Can he stay healthy? It’s a small sample size, but Higgins appears to be a thoroughbred. He devastatingly fast and athletic, but also fragile.
He came into last season nursing a hamstring injury, which set him back in camp and significantly slowed his integration into the offense. Once healthy, he looked great, until he sprained his ankle in practice right before Bama, tried to give it a go in the game, and re-injured it. He had a great spring camp, but missed time in fall camp with another hamstring injury.
If Higgins can stay healthy, he has the ability to be one of the best wide receivers in the country, but he’s yet to show he can stay healthy. Let’s hope the injuries are in the past.
Trevion Thompson - #1:
Thompson is actually listed as a co-starter with Tee Higgins in the preseason depth chart, but I’m pretty comfortable in naming Tee the starter in this article. Thompson is a Swiss Army Knife wide receiver that can play both the 9 and the 5 for Clemson. Coach Swinney likes to compare Thompson with former Clemson receiver Jaron Brown, and I’ll defer to the man who sees him in practice every day.
Last year, Thompson would occasionally pop up for a key catch, and then fade back into the background. Most of his completions are of the short to intermediate variety close to the sideline. Looking at his stats, you wouldn’t peg Thompson as a guy Clemson will lean on this season, but Coach Swinney seems to always mention Thompson as a guy who practices well and does everything that is asked of him. Seeing Thompson listed as a Co-starter at the 9 on the preseason depth chart was strange for some people, but if you listen to Coach Swinney’s press conferences, it wasn’t surprising.
If Clemson can get a Jaron Brown-esque 20-30 receptions, a few touchdowns, and an occasional clutch 3rd down pick up out of Thompson this year, things well be very good indeed.
Diondre Overton -#14
Overton looks great getting off the bus. He’s a tall, chiseled athlete that looks like a future NFL stud. Looks, unfortunately, only get you so far, and Overton’s obvious physical tools have yet to translate into on-field production.
I had last year circled as his break out year at the 9 position, and I thought he had something going after a solid performance (2 catches, 48 yards vs Louisville) and then....a whole bunch of nothing. He would snag a pass here and there, but he never made a move on the 9 position, even when it became rather obvious that Cain was better at the 2 position.
Hope springs eternal though, and Overton will have every opportunity to put his stamp on this Clemson season. You look at him and think “redzone, throw it up, touchdown” but he’s never been a guy the coaches trust around the goal line. He’s got to make the move from impressive athlete that looks like he should be good at football, to football player who is actually good at football. There is no reason why he can’t make this transition and it would certainly help the cause if did.
He needs to get it figured out quick, because the next guy on the list is going to be tough to keep off the field.
Justyn Ross -#8
Ross is a freak of nature. He’s another guy that is always open because “50/50” balls are really “90/10” balls for Ross. The only thing that will keep Ross off the field this year is his ability to pick up the playbook and do the little things, because he’s got the “jump high and catch the ball” thing licked. Some people compare him to Nuk because of his ability to high point the football, some people compare him to Mike Williams because of his big body.
I’ll hold off on comparing him to all time greats just yet, but much like Tee Higgins, all time great is his ceiling.
Ross has a ton of talent ahead of him on the depth chart, but don’t be surprised to see him slowly incorporated into the offense, much like Tee Higgins was last year, in hopes that he’s fully operational by the time the CFP rolls around. Also don’t be surprised if the coaching staff see if he can play at the 2, at least around the goal line. Higgins and Ross at the 9 and 2 with Hunter Renfrow working underneath at the 5 would be an absolute nightmare for defensive coordinators.
Field Wide Receiver (2)
Starter - Amari Rodgers -#3
Rodgers is an Artavis Scott clone with a little better burst. Last year, Ray Ray did a fine job at the 2 position, but he is more of finesse player. Rodgers, like Scott, is basically a running back that lines up on the outside. Rodgers made a catch here and there last year as McCloud’s understudy, but this year it wouldn’t surprise me if Rodgers was Clemson’s leader in receptions.
Last season, Clemson’s wide receiver screen game was hit and miss. Ray Ray was always a threat to break a big play, but he wasn’t a guy that was going to grind out tough yards on the outside. Rodgers will bring the “long hand off” screen we ran with Artavis back into the playbook. If the quarterback can raise up and fire a quick pass for a guaranteed 5 yards on first down, it makes everything much easier. Rodgers is one of the shortest wide receivers on the roster, at a listed 5’10, but he’s also the heaviest wide receiver on the roster at 215. He carries a good bit of that weight in his tree trunk thighs.
He’s going to be a nightmare for any 180 pound defensive back to get on the ground and if they try and take the quick screen away with press man, he’s going to eat up the jam and be gone down the sideline. He’s the perfect foil for fellow Tennessee native Tee Higgins. It’s going to be hard for defensive coordinators to consistently double team Higgins, with Rodgers gouging them in the screen game on the other side of the field.
Higgins might be the headliner, but Rodgers could be the work horse of this receiving group.
Cornell Powell - #17
I think people forget just how hyped Powell was coming out of high school. Rivals had him a breath away from being a 5*. He was rated as the 36th best player in the nation, and the 4th best receiver. His production has yet to match his lofty rating, and much like Overton, this has to be the year he puts it together.
In high school, Powell was known as an explosive receiver who was particularly good with the ball in his hands after the catch. He was an absolute terror as a kick returner, and I was certain that he would make a big difference on special teams. So far, we’ve yet to see him run with the ball, either after a catch or as a kick returner. Powell is getting a look at returning kicks in camp, and could make a real difference in the return game if the coaches trust him with the ball in his hands.
I will cut Powell slack, and maybe I should do same for Overton. Simply put, last year was a tough year to break out as a wide receiver. The 2016 Clemson team attempted 625 passes and completed 421 of those passes. The 2017 Clemson team attempted 466 passes and completed 308 of those passes. There weren’t that many completions to go around, and the starters gobbled up the majority of those opportunities. There weren’t many receptions left over for guys farther down the depth chart.
I expect the 2018 team to be more balanced on offense, and while I doubt we’ll see 625 passing attempts, I think we’ll see significantly more than 466 passing attempts. Powell should have every opportunity to make a move this year. It might be now or never, because the next player on the list is immensely talented.
Derion Kendrick - #10
Kendrick was the best player in South Carolina high school football last year and a 5* recruit. The coaching staff have compared his athleticism to Sammy Watkins. Wait, stop, I want you to go back and reread that last sentence. Okay, now wipe the drool off the corner of your mouth.
Kendrick isn’t going to be as polished as Watkins was coming into Clemson because he is making the transition from quarterback to wide receiver. It might take him a little while to learn the nuances of the position but I expect the coaches to scheme ways to get the ball into his hands, even if he isn’t a complete receiver yet. He’s slippery in the open field, and when he finds a crease in the defense, he’s gone. When he is compared to Sammy Watkins, it’s because he has that same burst that Watkins used to destroy defenses. He can run fast, faster than everyone else.
I expect to see Kendrick utilized in the screen game and he should be a major factor in return game as well. I expect him to be one of the starting kick returners, and I think he’ll get a chance to return some punts as well. He might not be the full time punt returner, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get opportunities. When he’s on the field, I don’t think you’re going to see many fair catches. Kendrick brings something to the return game that Clemson hasn’t seen since Sammy left for the NFL. I suggest timing your bathroom and snack breaks appropriately, because kick returns are about to be interesting again.
Slot Receiver (5)
Starter - Hunter Renfrow - #13
Hunter Renfrow gets open and catches the ball. That’s his main skill as a wide receiver, and it turns out, that’s pretty important. Renfrow is insanely quick in a small area and catches everything that is thrown in his general direction. He’s pretty much the perfect slot receiver.
Last season, everyone knew Hunter was getting the ball on 3rd down. I knew, the other teams D.C. knew, my 3-year-old daughter knew, hell, I even think Dave Doeren eventually figured it out, but knowing he is getting the ball and stopping him from getting the ball are two completely different propositions.
Renfrow is far and away the most experienced receiver in this group. He led the Tigers in receiving last year with 60 catches and was Kelly Bryant’s security blanket. This season, Clemson should have a few more options on offense both at quarterback and wide receiver. Hunter will get his catches, but I don’t think he’ll have 2 defenders hanging all over him when he makes them this year. I think his total catches might drop a little, but I think his yardage and touchdowns will go up with more space to operate in over the middle.
Hunter is already a Clemson legend, and his final chapter could be his best.
T.J. Chase - #18
I think Chase is going to surprise some people this year. He came into Clemson as a rail thin 4* receiver out of IMG and now he looks like a D1 receiver. When the coaches talk about the receivers, Chase’s name comes up a good bit, given Clemson’s embarrassment of riches at the position, that’s a good thing, a really good thing. He brings a little different look than Renfrow and has the potential to stretch the field vertically out of the slot.
Chase has the speed to get on top of the safety down the seam, and that’s something that was sorely missing from the offense last year. The tight ends didn’t threaten down the seam and that’s not really Renfrow’s strength. If Chase can come in this year and give the Tigers a legit deep threat down the middle of the field, even if he’s just a decoy, the offense will have more room for everything else. Clemson doesn’t need him to be a high volume receiver, but they need him to be an impact receiver.
A 15-20 catch year, with a high per catch average, and a couple long touchdowns would be ideal production from Chase this year.
Man for man, you won’t find a more talented group of receivers in the nation. Jeff Scott has assembled a diverse and talented group. Every position has 2 or 3 guys that would start for other programs. Clemson’s 2nd team wide receiver group would probably be one of the top 15 groups in the nation.
While the talent is there, it will be interesting to see if production follows. Last year, Clemson buttoned up the play book, shortened the game, and ran the ball. That really cut into wide receiver production.
This year, I think the Tigers will return to their wide open attack, because if the goal is to win the National Championship, and not just make the playoffs, the Tigers have to be more explosive on offense. They have the studs on the outside to get the job done, just throw it up and let them go get it. You can’t out-Bama, Bama, but you can out-Clemson them.