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New Stars Aligning for Clemson at Receiver

By Dave Holcomb
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Assuming there will be a season this fall in some capacity, the Tigers now have a ton of wide receiver production to replace from last year.

The Clemson Tigers lost wide receiver Tee Higgins and then announced this summer that junior Justyn Ross needs spine surgery and will miss the entire 2020 season. Assuming there will be a season this fall in some capacity, the Tigers now have a ton of wide receiver production to replace from last year.

In fact, Higgins and Ross accumulated 125 catches, 2,032 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns. From a yardage perspective, they accounted for almost 47 percent of Clemson’s receiving total for the 2019 season.

While replacing that kind of production is never ideal, the timing couldn’t be worse for quarterback Trevor Lawrence when considering he again faces Heisman Trophy and National Championship expectations. But if there’s any program who can overcome this loss, especially in the ACC, it’s Clemson, who even without Ross, could still have one of the best receiving corps in the conference.

With Higgins going to the NFL draft, the Tigers expected senior Amari Rodgers to step up and become a bigger part of the Clemson offense this fall anyway. Without Ross, Rodgers is now the team’s most experienced receiver. Last year, Rodgers caught 30 passes for 426 yards and four touchdowns, which was third-most among Clemson wideouts after Higgins and Ross.

On a roster with those two receiving stars, Rodgers assumed more of a slot receiver role, but he did also play outside at times. It will be interesting to see if Clemson permanently moves him to the traditional wide receiver position or keeps him as a jack-of-all-trades. His elusiveness makes him more lethal on screen passes than deeper routes.

Even with their wideout depth taking multiple hits this offseason, the Tigers still have the option to leave Rodgers in the slot most of the time because of two up-and-coming sophomores -- receivers Joe Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr.

Arriving as a 4-star prospect and the No. 9 receiver in the 2019 class according to 247Sports, Ngata recorded 17 receptions for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Ladson came to Clemson an even more highly-regarded recruit as the 39th-overall player and seventh-best receiver in the 2019 class. Ladson also produced three touchdowns with nine catches and 140 yards.

Both of those player rankings -- based upon the player composite scores at 247Sports -- are similar to the ratings Ross received when he came to Clemson as part of the 2018 class. The size and speed of Ngata and Ladson also mirrors Ross and even Higgins.

At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Ngata possesses the athleticism to be Clemson’s next “athletic catcher” over the middle of the field, and his acceleration makes him a candidate to excel on deeper routes as well. Ngata hauled in a 25-yard reception against Texas A&M in just his second college game and then went on to post two other games with multiple catches and at least a 20-yard reception average. He will see plenty of more opportunities this fall.

That is true of Ladson as well, who possesses the versatility, like Ross, to play on the outside and in the slot. While Ladson only had one game with multiple receptions as a freshman, he caught a 21-yard touchdown in Week 1 and then posted a 57-yard reception against Virginia during the ACC Championship.

The presence of both Ngata and Ladson will give Rodgers the chance to remain mostly in the slot where he excels the most. Rodgers can also line up outside when necessary with Ladson sliding inside to give defenses a different look.

The last factor to consider, though, for Clemson replacing Ross is one of the team’s best players -- senior Travis Etienne. As a running back, Etienne won’t directly replace Ross, but he can play a bigger role in the passing game.

Etienne has averaged more than 7.0 yards per carry each of the last two seasons and became a bigger part of the passing offense with 37 receptions and 432 yards in 2019. He was third on the team behind Higgins and Ross in both catches and receiving yards.

Etienne will likely post 200 carries again but another 40-50 touches in the passing attack seems very likely without Higgins and Ross this year. The more Clemson feeds Etienne the ball, as long as the team doesn’t wear him out, the better because he is a truly special player ready to leave his final mark on college football.

The news of Ross’ season-ending surgery had to be disappointing to Clemson coaches and fans, but the program has many pieces in place to combat the loss.