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Clemson 2020 Season Review: Wide Receivers

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For the first time in a long time, the wide receiver position wasn’t dominant for the Tigers.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Russell Costanza-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver has not been at a question mark at Clemson for a long time, but that’s what it was for most of last season. Looking back at Dabo’s run with the Tigers, 2015 is the last year where that could be said. That team had Artavis Scott, a freshman Hunter Renfrow, and a finally healthy Charone Peake, but was missing a true go-to receiver after Mike Williams went down with a broken neck in the first game of the year. Luckily, Jordan Leggett stepped up at the tight end position and gave Deshaun Watson a reliable, sure-handed pass catcher in the middle of the field.

Strangely enough, the 2020 team had a similar problem, but fewer solutions. Add Justyn Ross to the equation and things probably sort themselves out, but Ross wasn’t available and until Cornell Powell caught fire mid-season, the receiver position outside of Amari Rodgers was marginal at best. That’s disappointing for a team featuring one of the best quarterback talents in the last 20 years.

I’ve decided to turn back the clock to my teaching career and hand out some basic grades for the 2020 season, and folks, it’s not great.

Exceeds Expectations

Cornell Powell

53 receptions, 882 yards, 7 TDS

When the team was desperate for an outside receiver, Powell emerged from the shadows and grabbed the reins. He had more receptions this year than his first 4 seasons at Clemson combined. Oddly enough, it took Trevor Lawrence going down to COVID for Cornell to put it all together and become the 4* receiver we all (at least QT and I) knew he was.

Without Powell, Clemson doesn’t make the CFP because they were dead in the water against Boston College without his 11 catch, 105-yard performance in DJ’s first game as a starter. It was obvious that he had a better rapport with the rookie signal caller (possibly because they took second-team reps together) than he had Lawrence. He followed up his stellar BC game by setting Notre Dame on fire to the tune of 6 receptions for 161 yards. He had more receiving yards against the Fighting Irish than in any full season of his career up until this year. As they say, it’s better late than never.

The only reason to ever watch that abysmal Ohio State game again is to see him cook Shaun Wade, drop him on the ground, and then feed him to the dog like a burnt hot dog at a 4th of July barbeque. His 8 catch, 139-yard, two-touchdown performance would go down in Clemson lore if the defense hadn’t forgotten how to line up for an entire game or maybe if Dabo had brought those guts he’s so fond of talking about instead of surrender punting at every opportunity (oh, don’t think I won’t hate on Clemson when the need arises).

Powell made himself untold amounts of cash in 2020, going from a guy most people had never heard of to a potential mid-round pick on the strength of his last 6 games of his Clemson career alone. While I would have loved a super 6th season out of Cornell, he’s making the smart play and hitting the NFL while he’s hot. It took him a while, but he managed to secure his bag in the end.

Amari Rogers

77 receptions, 1,020 yards, 7 TDs

Everyone knew Amari was talented, but after a rather disappointing 2019 (after showing Wolverine-like healing powers to return from a spring ACL tear). The wide receiver in a running back’s body made the best of his 4th and final season.

At 5’10”, he didn’t look like the traditional Clemson lead receiver, but he managed to be a steady target for Trevor, always a threat to turn a 1-yard pass into a 20 yard gain. His best game came against Notre Dame. He pulled in 8 receptions for 134 yards in the loss in South Bend and then punished the Irish to the tune of 8 receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown in the revenge ACC Championship game.

When you think of Clemson under Dabo, you think of long, fast outside receivers pulling in 50/50 balls at an 80/20 rate. Amari proved you don’t have to be 6’4” to get it done in Tony Elliott’s offense. Like Cornell, he’s taking his game to the NFL next season. I expect him to go somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd round and have a 10-12 year career as a reliable slot receiver with the ability to take it to the house on occasion.

Meets Expectations

E.J. Williams

24 receptions, 306 yards, 2 TDs

This is about where I had EJ slotted to come in at the start of the season. He’s got a long way to go before he fills out his rail-thin frame, but his skill set is elite. He’s another guy that lit up Notre Dame (I’m seeing a trend here) in the ACC Championship game. His 4 receptions for 80 yards helped the Tigers put away the Fighting Irish early. He showed the type of body control and high point ability that makes you think he can step into the void at boundary position sooner, rather than later.

I expect him to be Robin to Justyn Ross’s Batman next season before grabbing the controls of the Bat Mobile as a junior. As I mentioned above, he’s going to need to pack on some muscle, but that’s never been a problem for Clemson receivers. Tee Higgins had 17 receptions for 345 yards and 2 touchdowns as a true freshman, and he turned out pretty good if memory serves me well. I’m not sure he follows Tee’s exact career path, but he possesses early-round NFL potential.

Needs Improvement

Frank Ladson

18 receptions, 281 yards, 3 TDs

Expectations were high for Frank coming into the season, and I think it’s safe to say he didn’t meet them. Simply put, when the ball was in the air, it was anyone’s guess if Ladson was going to catch it. Sometimes he made the spectacular catch, other times he dropped a sure touchdown. It’s always an adventure with Frank, and that’s not a good thing.

To compound a sketchy pair of hands, Ladson was bitten by the injury bug going down the stretch and only managed one reception in the last 6 games of the season. Take away his 3 reception, 87-yard, 2 touchdown performance against El Cid and his only game of note was a 5 reception 71 yard game against UVA the following week.

Clemson needed Ladson to take a step up in 2020 and that didn’t happen. All the talent is still there, but if he doesn’t tap into it soon and find some consistency, he is going to find himself on the outside of the wide receiver rotation looking in.

In my opinion, 2021 is a make or break season for Frank.

Brannon Spector

16 receptions, 136 yards, 0 TDs

We’ve heard a good deal about Spector from Dabo. He even donned the sacred number 13 this season, but comparisons with Saint Hunter stop at a shared number. There was ample opportunity for Spector to step up and fill the void in Clemson’s decimated receiving group, and it never happened.

At this point, I’m not sure where Spector fit in the Clemson offense. I know everyone wants him to be a slot receiver, but I think he’s more of a field receiver. I don’t see the short-area quickness or knack for finding soft spots in the middle of the field, or the hands, required of the slot position. One small bit of redemption for the younger Spector was his 2 carries for 21 yards. When his number was called on the end around, he managed to move the ball down the field at a reasonable clip.

Much like Ladson, Brannon needs to make a move next season or he risks getting left behind on the depth chart.

Incomplete

Joseph Ngata

7 Receptions, 83 yards, 0 TDS

Ngata came into the 2020 season as the guy most people thought (including myself) would take over for Tee Higgins at the signature boundary position. Long story short, he pulled an abdominal muscle early in the season and only managed to play in 4 games.

Dabo has compared Ngata to some of the great Clemson wide receivers of the past, but thus far, the former 5* hasn’t managed to get out of the gate. It’s weird, Clemson has never had a 5* receiver bust under Dabo. It took Tee a season to get warmed up, but after that, he caught fire. Sammy came in on fire. Justyn Ross almost killed an Alabama defensive back in the National Championship game. I thought 5* receivers came into Clemson with a guarantee of dominance, but thus far, Ngata hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations.

He’s been banged up two straight seasons, and you have to start wondering if he’s ever going to stay healthy. I’ve got him marked down as my third “make or break” wideout in 2021. The thing about playing for Clemson is Dabo won’t cut you, but he’s going to continue to bring in talent year after year. It’s your job to carve out your place on the roster. The best-case scenario at this point is a Charone Peake-like rise from the injury ashes. Joseph better start carving fast.

He’s got the talent, but will his body abide?

Ajou Ajou

2 receptions, 41 yards, 1 TD

In a way, Ajou both met expectations and received an incomplete. Not much was expected out of the raw but freakishly athletic Canadian, and he didn’t provide much.

At the same time, his touchdown reception against Georgia Tech showed why the Tigers uncharacteristically rolled the dice at a position at which they should be able to land a sure thing every year. That little taste of Ajou galloping through the Yellow Jacket defense like a gazelle has me hooked. If Tyler Grisham can take this freakish athlete and turn him into a football player, Clemson has an e-l-i-t-e player on their hands. I’ve got 2022 circled as his breakout year and have already printed up a batch of “Ajou in 2022” t-shirts to kick off his Heisman campaign.

Overall

Not going to lie, I expect more out of this group in 2020. Ladson, Ngata, and Spector all failed to impress for a host of different reasons. Thank God for Cornell Powell, because I’m not sure we had enough firepower on the outside to win the ACC otherwise.

We’ll add Beaux Collins, Dacari Collins, and Troy Stellato to the mix next year, and for the first time in a long time, Clemson may need a true freshman receiver to step up and make an impact, instead of it being an added bonus to an already elite group.