Alrighty folks, I’m writing this as the Tigers begin practice for the 2022 season, so the time to do these last two positions has arrived. Today I take on wide receivers, which has become such a deep position in the last decade+ that the program has donned the #WRU moniker. Like DE, the WR position has become much more prolific with the modernization of the offensive attack post 1998. Now I take on the daunting task of choosing the top four guys to play the position in Tiger history. The honorable mentions at the end will include several guys who would be on the mountain for a lot of other schools.
- Jerry Butler (1976-1978). Some guys from the older eras simply wouldn’t translate all that well to today’s game. Butler is an exception and would have likely put up insane numbers had he played in the type of offenses Clemson has run since 1999. Guys in the Ring of Honor sort of stake their claim to a Mount Rushmore (apologies to Banks McFadden who simply played so many spots it was hard to pin him to one). Butler still put up some impressive numbers despite the much more limited opportunities he was given. Steve Fuller threw for 3170 yards and 15 TDs his last two seasons. Butler had 1732 yards and 7 TDs during those same two seasons! It is hard to find a guy who commanded that high of a percentage of the production. Oh, and Butler produced “The Catch 1” as well!
- Sammy Watkins (2011-2013). Anthony Simmons and Justin Miller had the two most dominant true freshman seasons of defensive players in my memory, and the offensive award goes to Sammy Watkins. Watkins took his first touch to the house and went on to be the catalyst of the 2011 offensive renaissance. I’ll never forget being at that Auburn game and just being in awe of just how dominant Watkins was at such a young age. His “sophomore slump” season still would have easily led last year’s team in catches and yards. Watkins rebounded in his final season to put up even bigger numbers than his epic freshman season. His final performance against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl was, in my mind, tied with Deshaun Watson for the greatest final performance of any Clemson Tiger ever. He simply dominated that game from start to finish. Watkins also was the last Tiger to return a kickoff for a TD.
- Deandre Hopkins (2010-2012). It is still staggering to believe Clemson’s 2011-2012 teams featured two guys who I would put on the mountain. Hopkins was one of the few offensive bright spots down the stretch of the frustrating 2010 season. By 2011, he was a major factor in Chad Morris’s HUNH attack that took the league by storm. Even with Watkins putting up over 1200 yards in 2011, Hopkins nearly cracked 1000 himself. I’ve heard stories that Hopkins felt the staff thought Martavis Bryant might overtake him. Whether that was true or not, Hopkins became a man possessed going into his last year in 2012. Sammy Watkins began that year suspended and “Nuk” sent a message right out of the gate against Auburn in Atlanta that he was the alpha on that team. I was lucky enough to be in the Georgia Dome for that game AND the legendary Peach Bowl against LSU when Hopkins once again didn’t let Watkins’ absence doom the team. That performance was arguably as good as Watkins against Ohio State, particularly considering the level of NFL talent LSU possessed on defense. The catch he made on the 4th and 16 play is right up there for most iconic play in program history.
- Mike Williams (2013-2016). I could not leave this guy off the mountain! Williams stepped into the void left by Watkins in 2014 to put up a 1000 yard season, then would recover from literally breaking his neck in the first game of 2015 (on a TD catch no less) to put up a dominant 2016 as Watson’s #1 guy. Williams was right up there with Hopkins for ridiculous ball skills and dominating 50-50 situations. His ability to beat tight press coverage was a major component to Clemson’s ability to attack that vaunted 2016 Alabama defense. It is hard to pick one best play of that legendary final drive in Tampa, but Williams made one huge catch and also drew a PI in the endzone to set up the final winning play. His completely disrespectful treatment of the U of SC in that 56-7 beatdown could probably warrant an article all on its own.
So those are four ridiculously good players I simply couldn’t deny a place on the mountain. That said, the list of guys I had to leave off hurts to even mention. Guys like Perry Tuttle, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated (and the only Tiger to do so until the Swinney era); Gary Cooper, who was THE big play guy on those run heavy Ford teams he was on; Terry Smith (who knows what he or Cooper might have done in more modern offenses); Tony Horne (small package, big time plays); Rod Gardner (two All-American seasons, “The Catch II”, the guy who ushered in a new age of Clemson WR!); Derrick Hamilton (unbelievable playmaker!); Airese Currie (underrated great season in 2004); Aaron Kelly (quiet but extremely productive career); Jacoby Ford (probably the fastest Tiger in history!); Hunter freakin’ Renfrow! Tee Higgins!!! Justyn Ross (that freshman year alone was worth the HM). Heck, guys like Chansi Stuckey, Tyler Grisham, Adam Humphries, Jaron Brown, Charone Peake, and Martavis Bryant all made it to the NFL (and Humphries is still there!) yet I couldn’t even rank them among the list of HMs.
Yeah, it has been a great run at the WR position and hopefully 2022 will reveal another name for future consideration.