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Justyn Ross Sidelined Through 2020

Congenital fusion in Ross’ spine places his football career in question

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In the latest blow 2020 delivered us, this week we learned Justyn Ross, Clemson’s top returning target and the heir apparent at boundary receiver, would miss the entire upcoming season due to congenital fusion in his neck and spine.

Ross was born with the issue which X-ray uncovered while scanning a supposed shoulder stinger in early March. This upcoming Friday’s long-scheduled surgery is now revealed to be the best chance to save Ross’ career, and no longer a mere shoulder scope.

This is akin to the decision to shut down Mike Williams’ 2015 season after his neck injury in game 1, though which much higher stakes. Like Williams, Ross perhaps could be fine to play, but the risk is too great; spinal injuries or deformities of any kind are not football decisions so much as life decisions. Surgery now may salvage his career, though it’s impossible to get a good read on those chances until after surgery.

Regarding what Clemson will miss this season, Ross is the top route runner on the team and was due to be the clear focus in the deep and perimeter passing game. Dominant while backing up Tee Higgins in the boundary en route to freshman All America honors in 2018, Ross switched to field receiver (outside receiver on the wide side, outside the slot) opposite Higgins in 2019 to give the Tigers dominant threats along either sideline, more specifically, the first downfield threat Clemson deployed at field receiver since Sammy Watkins in 2013.

Due for an obvious drop in yards per catch in his new position in 2019, Ross did manage to become Clemson’s leader in receptions in his new role thanks mainly to his crisp route running on intermediate routes, compared to his primarily deep routes spelling Higgins the year before.

Now, Clemson will need a new headliner to step up between sophomores Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson. Ngata was the 3rd string boundary target a year ago, while Ladson helped back up Ross at field. This spring they battled to start at field opposite Ross, and with this news the question shifts from which of the two will start, to where? Though it’s been months since anyone has seen them practice, much less play, the battle to me comes down to which type of receiver you want for each role.

Ladson has the length and speed to play the boundary position like Martavis Bryant, Charone Peake, and Deon Cain did, but I shouldn’t have to remind you how dearly Clemson missed a dominant possession target in those seasons. Ngata seemed the stronger, more polished receiver a year ago, but have we seen the attacking ball skills to provide that dominant sideline target Clemson prefers (or at least I prefer) from its boundary receiver like DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Williams, and Tee Higgins? A normal spring would’ve revealed much here, and suddenly there are questions around more than simply the offensive line depth.

Based on these perceived archetypes, I’d bet on Ngata and Ladson sticking where they understudied a year ago: Ngata’s strength and hands at boundary, with Ladson’s measurables providing a multifaceted threat at field. Clemson is fortunate to remain stacked in skill position talent, but this is an unexpected twist for a wide receiver room long able to afford nearly any luxury.