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2020 Clemson Football Season Preview: Wide Receiver

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For the first time in a while, there are questions about the receiver position coming into the season. Luckily, there are plenty of answers available.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Clemson enters the 2020 season in unfamiliar territory. There are legitimate questions at the wide receiver position. The early departure of Tee Higgins to the NFL was a foreseeable roster casualty, but the Tigers were in prime position to absorb Tee’s defection because Justyn Ross was waiting in the wings to take over at the 9 (or boundary) position.

Thinking back on the 2019 season, Ross never seemed quite right. He was explosive in spurts, but it felt like he was holding back, or being held back, by something. When news broke that the Clemson star would miss the 2020 season after being diagnosed with a congenital spinal fusion and subsequent bulging disk that required surgery, things became more opaque for the Tigers at the boundary position, and every other receiver position. Throw in the departure of long-time wide receiver coach Jeff Scott to sunny south Florida to take over the USF Bulls, and Tigers lost their two best receivers and the receiver coach in one off-season.

Former Clemson receiver turned Clemson wide receiver coach Tyler Grisham won’t be getting any sympathy from the rest of the college world, despite a rather rocky start to his tenure.

The Tigers still ooze talent at wide receiver, it’s only a question of which receiver will burst onto the national scene in the coming months.

Boundary Receiver (9)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the premier wide receiver position in college football. I can’t think of another position that can boast the parade of talent Clemson has plugged into the boundary role. As I mentioned above, Justyn Ross was poised to jump into the boundary receiver position and keep the obscene talent train rolling before he was temporarily derailed by injury. That leaves some of the young bucks on the roster to pick up the slack.

Joseph Ngata

Joseph came into Clemson with sky high expectations, but there wasn’t room to take off last season with Tee, Justyn, and Amari garnering the lion’s share of touches at receiver. There is no shame in being stuck behind two NFL talents. Ngata spent last season gassing up his rocket, and the former 5* wide receiver from California is ready to lift off in 2020.

Listed as the presumed starter at the boundary position in the preseason depth chart, the 6’3, 220 pound Ngata brings a little something different from the taller and thinner Higgins and Ross. He can still go up and get the ball, but he’s also capable of dump trucking defenders on the way to the end zone. Unless the other team has a jumbo sized corner, he’ll have a significant weight and strength advantage over any defensive back that lines up over him.

Y’all remember when Justyn Ross slapped the soul out of Savion Smith? That’s going to be repeated on a game to game basis in 2020 if teams try and press Ngata. I look forward to watching it.

E.J. Williams

It’s easy to compare Williams to fellow Central High School (Phenix, Alabama) alum Justyn Ross. Ross came in ranked slightly higher, but both were considered elite high school receivers. Ross came to Clemson listed at 6’4, 195 and Williams is 6’3, 190. Now, I’m not saying that freshman E.J. Williams is going to be on the same level as freshman Ross, but after being listed as the primary back up to Ngata on the initial 2020 depth chart, he’ll get opportunities to show what he can do this year.

Williams will eventually need to add some weight to his lean frame to reach his final form at Clemson. He’s more a smooth, long-striding (according to 247 sports) runner than a speed merchant, but that’s fine for the boundary position at Clemson. His best attribute is his ability to go up and get the ball, and that’s what he’ll be asked to do this season.

Field Receiver (2)

Cornell Powell

Powell has had a somewhat tumultuous career at Clemson. People forget that the Greenville, North Carolina product came to Clemson as a borderline 5* prospect. In fact, according to Rivals, he’s the second highest ranked wide receiver (behind Ngata) on the Clemson roster. He’s been stuck behind some legendary Clemson receivers and had some weird off-field issues, but he can put all that behind him in 2020. Dabo sang his praises in both spring and fall camp, and I get the feeling that Powell will get the starting nod at the field position to start the year.

Coming into Clemson, Powell was known as an explosive run-after-catch guy. It was widely believed that he would be the answer for Clemson kick and punt return questions. That hasn’t worked out yet, but I’m optimistic that he’s ready to fulfill his ample potential in 2020. For some guys, it takes a minute for everything to click. Powell has always had the physical ability. It sounds like he’s put together everything else this season. It’s been a minute since Clemson had a senior breakout star on offense. Powell could be that guy.

Frank Ladson

Much like fellow class of 2019 member Joseph Ngata, opportunities were few and far between for the speed merchant out of Miami last season. That’s not an indictment of Ladson’s talent, but rather a compliment to Higgins and Ross. Instead of getting down on himself, Ladson went to work. When he announced his commitment to Clemson he was listed at 6’3, 170 pounds by Rivals. Entering his sophomore season, he is tipping the scales at 205. The only question about Ladson as a recruit was his ability to gain weight. That question has been answered.

Frank came into Clemson known for his ability to go deep. That was his main role in high school, and he ate safeties alive with his long speed on the post route. Now, a year into his career, he’s diversified his skill set. He can still get deep, but should be more of a threat after the catch with his added weight and strength. He’ll be on the field a ton this year, and Clemson needs him to be good.

Slot Receiver (5)

Amari Rogers

First and foremost, Amari is a freak of nature. His maniacal work ethic paired with what I can only assume is some sort of mutant healing ability allowed him to return from a spring ACL tear to not only contribute, but play a key role in the 2019 season. Before Justin Fields hit Nolan Turner on an exquisite post route to seal the game, Amari found himself wide open on the previous drive, and Trevor delivered a strike, taking the Tigers from their own 28 to the Buckeyes 34. One play later Travis found the endzone, and the rest, as they say, is history. Without Amari’s heroics, it’s possible we would have missed out on the greatest sustained fan temper tantrum in the history of college athletics.

Amari, if you’re reading this, thank you. The joy I’ve found in Buckeye tears has helped me through the abomination known as 2020.

This season, we’re getting Amari 2.0. Last year he spent his entire off season trying to get back onto the field. This year he spent it getting better. He’s listed as the starter at the slot position, but I anticipate seeing him all over the field. I see him as a better version of Artavis Scott, and folks, Artavis was, and still is, a beast. I look for 2020 to be a coming out party for explosive 5’10, 210 pound wide receiver in a running backs body. I think he leads the Tigers in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2020.

Brannon Spector

Much like Amari, I expect Brannon to bounce around between the slot and field positions this season. You may even see him a little at the boundary in the right circumstances. I know, I know, Hunter Renfrow is the name that comes up every time you hear Spector’s name, but they’re a little bit different in terms of playing style.

First off, Spector, at 6’1, 195 pounds, is significantly bigger than the 5’10, 185 pound Renfrow. While Hunter is all small area quickness and acceleration, Brannon has more top end speed and can be a little more physical coming of the line. He’s not as quick as Hunter, and probably can’t catch a greased B.B. going 100 miles an hour, but that’s an impossible standard. Spector is plenty quick, and can haul in passes with the best of them.

If you’re looking for the guy that opens up the middle of the field for business again, Spector (along with Galloway at tight end) is the answer. I think, as the season progresses, you’ll see more and more of Rogers at the field position and Spector in the slot. The first time he runs an option route on 3rd and 6 and picks up a first down between the hash marks turn the volume down on your T.V. If the atmospheric conditions are right, you should be able to hear me cheering in any of the 48 contiguous from my basement lair in Manhattan, Kansas.

Other Receivers of Note

Ajou Ajou

Hailing from Brooks, Alberta Canada, Ajou is as raw as the Canadian winter at this point in his young career. At the same time, it’s clear why a Clemson team that can recruit wide receivers from all over the U.S. went north of the border to bring in Ajou. Once he gets the game figured out the 6’3, 215 pound physical specimen, with a playing style that reminds me of Mike Williams, will make an impact for the Tigers.

The Brothers Swinney

Clemson has never lost a game when either Drew or Will Swinney have caught a pass. That seems like an important stat.