I usually draw the linebackers for our season previews and reviews here at STS, but this time I get to slide over to arguably the best position group on the team: WR. Needless to say, #WRU was back in full force in 2018 and was a major reason the Tigers reached the top of the mountain once again. Their performances against Notre Dame and Alabama were particularly dominant and the future looks brighter than ever. Let’s get to it!
DEPARTURES: Hunter (I’m not crying, you’re crying...) Renfrow - 49 catches, 544 yards, 11.1 per catch, 1 TD. What can we say about Renfrow that hasn’t already been said? Probably the best route runner in the history of Clemson football, if not the ACC and beyond. The little guy from Socastee showed his breakout performance in the 2015 National Title Game was no fluke as he continued to make clutch catch after clutch catch, usually on third downs, throughout his career. Few will be able to forget his wow moments beyond that game winner against Alabama, such as those ridiculous TD catches against Troy and Auburn. Renfrow was never an overpowering blocker but was more than willing to stick his nose in and put together a few key crack blocks along the way to spring big plays.
Renfrow is due to make a nice living in the NFL thanks to his uncanny ability to not only get in and out of breaks at an elite level, but also his ability to contort his body to adjust to off target throws (see above). It is very difficult to measure the loss Renfrow will be to this unit next year. Clemson will have the horses to replace his production, but the intangibles and consistency Renfrow brought to the table will surely be missed. Renfrow is a Clemson legend.
Trevion Thompson (21 catches, 189 yards, 9 yards per catch, 1 TD). Championship programs need guys like Trevion Thompson. This was a guy who toiled mostly in the shadows behind tremendous talents, yet stayed the course and provided versatile depth throughout. In the age of transfers, Thompson opted to stick with the team and leaves with four ACC and 2 natty rings to go with that Clemson diploma. Thompson was able to play all three primary WR positions but mostly manned the 5 and 9 spots. While he didn’t finish with a ton of catches, many of his targets were in big games and at big times.
Thompson’s most memorable moment is probably that big third down catch against U of SC in 2015 which helped the Tigers finish off the hated Gamecocks and keep the current streak alive (see .gif below). We will see what happens down the road, but chances are guys like Thompson are a dying breed in the modern “transfer portal” age of college football.
RETURNERS: I will discuss the returners by their primary WR position.
2 MAN WR: Amari Rodgers (So) 55 catches, 575 yards, 10.5 yards per catch, 4 TDs. Rodgers stepped in for the departed Ray-Ray McCloud and was an upgrade at the position. Rodgers is the perfect body type for the 2 man spot as he is built like a running back who can provide physical after the catch running on screens and sweeps. He also showed on several occasions that he can take the top off a defense and is probably a little better version of Clemson great Artavis Scott. Rodgers made the first huge play of the year at Texas A&M when he set up the first Tiger touchdown on a huge catch and run that showed his ability. Amari went off on the Seminoles for 156 yards at 2 TDs and will be poised for an even bigger 2019 as he will likely absorb some of the Renfrow targets.
Rodgers’ role as a punt returner will be covered in the special teams review, and should he stay healthy, there is a chance Rodgers could depart for the draft a year early following the 2019 season.
Derion Kendrick (Fr) 15 catches, 210 yards, 14.0 yards per catch, 0 TDs. Kendrick certainly flashed his five star ability at times during his freshman season. That 0 TD mark would likely be different if not for a couple of drops, most notably the one against Duke, but there is no doubt Kendrick is an electric talent who will only get better with more opportunities going forward. That yards per catch number is very high for the 2 position who catches a lot of underneath routes and screens. Kendrick is a big time threat on wheel route/screen and go route actions and I expect to see some explosive plays on those next year and beyond.
T.J. Chase (Jr) 13 catches, 101 yards, 7.8 yards per catch, 2 TDs. Chase and his fellow signing day mates Overton and Powell are ones to watch for attrition heading into next season. It is hard to imagine any of the three supplanting their younger competition on the depth chart, so which ones are willing to be a senior backup in 2019 like Trevion Thompson was this past season? Clemson rotates WRs more than just about any other program and any of the top 9 will get meaningful snaps and opportunities, it is simply a matter of how badly a guy wants to be a starter. Chase has a big spring ahead of him as he will likely use it to determine his future in the program, but he is certainly a solid player with good short area quicks even if he isn’t as physical as Rodgers or Kendrick.
5 MAN WR: Cornell Powell (Jr) 5 catches, 63 yards, 12.6 yards per catch, 0 TDs. While it is likely that Derion Kendrick will slide into the 5 man role vacated by Hunter Renfrow, Cornell Powell is the next guy I project to this position should he return and stay at WR coming off his decision to redshirt after four games of 2018. It is also likely that Justyn Ross or Tee Higgins mans this position more in 2019 in an effort to get both on the field at the same time. Powell is a guy that has toyed with the idea of moving to safety but has stuck at WR for the moment. Like Chase, Powell has a huge spring practice ahead of him and he will likely compete through it to see where he stands. Powell has always looked the part with a physical build and has served as the primary kick returner when eligible to play. Part of his future decision will likely hinge on his academic progress as he will need to graduate to transfer to a FBS school now that he has redshirted. Powell would certainly add value as a depth guy and special teams player should he remain on the team.
9 MAN WR: Tee Higgins (So) 59 catches, 936 yards, 15.9 yards per catch, 12 TDs. Tee looked poised to be a major breakout player coming out of the spring and did not disappoint in his first year as a starter. Tee showed why he was a five star recruit time and time again with some “You Got Moss’d” moments such as this one. Higgins has helped bring back the “creature” identity of the 9 man position that was missing in 2018.
The picture above is, of course, Tee finishing off the Crimson Tide in style with a tremendous catch in traffic on a laser beam throw from Trevor Lawrence. Higgins will only get bigger, stronger, and potentially faster as he spends another offseason in Joey Batson’s weight room. I fully expect next year to be his last one in orange as he will likely be poised to be a first round pick after laying waste to 2019 defensive backfields.
Justyn Ross (Fr) 46 catches, 1000 yards, 21.7 yards per catch, 9 TDs. Sammy Watkins was without a doubt the most dominant freshman WR I’ve ever seen, but Ross certainly firmly holds the #2 position after a monster freshman campaign. Ross is, quite simply, a faster version of Mike Williams, which is an extremely scary thing for opponents. Ross sent a message early in the Georgia Southern game that he was ready to make an impact and was a weapon of mass destruction in the playoffs.
I wondered if we’d ever see a collection of WRs like the 2012 group that featured 2 first round picks and six current NFL players, but the 2019 group could very well surpass that number (at least in terms of draft position). I certainly have no idea how opposing teams hope to cover both Ross and Higgins with a guy like Lawrence without allowing Rodgers and the other slot guys free reign over the middle or Etienne and the running game a very light box.
Diondre Overton (Jr.) 14 catches, 199 yards, 14.2 yards per catch, 3 TDs. I remember when old Urban Meyer had his first “retirement” and spent that season working for ESPN. I actually enjoyed him in that role and vividly recall his gawking at the WR talent Clemson had back in 2012. There was a deep ball play to Martavis Bryant, who at the time was down the depth chart as a freshman, and Meyer couldn’t believe a guy like that was coming off the bench. Folks must feel the same way when a guy like Overton is the third team 9 man. Like Trevion Thompson, Overton has had some big moments in his career despite limited opportunities. He had his turn working over the Alabama defense with a back shoulder fade in the championship blowout. Overton is another one to watch this spring as he will likely be deciding whether to finish things out at Clemson or seek a starting job elsewhere. I certainly feel he’d be a starter at the majority of teams Clemson has faced.
Walk on report: Will Swinney (So) 7 catches, 30 yards, 4.3 yards per catch, 1 TD. I’m sure I wasn’t alone grinning from ear to ear when Swinney got some action in the Alabama game. We beat them so badly that they got Will Swinney time! Swinney got himself a touchdown this year and probably should have had two more when he was robbed at Florida State and didn’t execute a fake field goal that was open.
INCOMING FRESHMEN: Clemson welcomes another crop of potential studs to the WR room in Frank Ladson, Brannon Spector, and Joe Ngata. Ladson brings the height/speed combination ideal for the 9 position while Ngata offers the physicality and versatility to play the 5 or 9. Spector is the heir apparent of the hallowed #13 vacated by Renfrow.
Overall: This is an extremely deep and talented depth chart moving into 2019. Having a trigger man like Trevor Lawrence and a proven NFL pipeline system only makes the prospects of maintaining or even improving this kind of production that much greater. Clemson may have some rebuilding to do on defense but this 2019 offense is going to be ridiculous.