After being out of coaching for two years, Dabo Swinney probably considered himself very lucky when Tommy Bowden called this past spring. The perceived hype of the Clemson wide receiver unit had to make the opening seem to good to be true for a guy looking to get back into the game. While there is a lot of talent within the group, Swinney has a tougher task ahead of him than many think. For starters, the thought that Clemson has a plethora of wide receivers is somewhat of a misconception. Of the returning players at the position, only three have any significant game experience. A fourth, Tony Elliott, has played just 148 snaps over the last three years. For a team that runs a lot of three and four wide receiver sets, that is not a lot of experienced depth. Secondly, a lack of consistency is another aspect of the group that Swinney must tackle. Plagued by dropped balls, poorly run routes, and missed blocks, the wide receivers did not make as many big plays as their talent allowed last year.
One of the basic principles of the Clemson offense is to spread the field by using three and four wide receiver sets in an effort to create mismatches in both the running and passing game. As such, the coaches feel that the quick passing game is one of the most important aspects of the offense. Therefore, it goes without saying that the four wide receivers- referred to, as the X, Y, Z, and H - have to be counted on if the offense is going to thrive. In the basic sets, the X is the wide guy to the short side. He is usually on the line and five to ten yards from the sideline. The H is the inside receiver to the short side. His alignment is two to three yards off the ball as he splits the difference between the X and the tackle. The Z is the outside man to the wide side of the field. He's generally five to eight yards outside of the hash and on the line. The Y is the slot to the strong side. He is one to four yards inside the hash. In most of these basic sets, the Wide receivers will almost always have five yards between them and the nearest offensive player. They are taught to have their inside foot up in their stances with their hands raised to shoulder height. Having their hands up provides for a more explosive release that allows them to better deal with defenders in press man coverage.
Nearly all of the routes in the short game have predetermined steps. You will also find that most of the routes in the four wide receiver package mirror each other. That is, if the X and H both run slants, the Z and Y will do the same. This forces the defense to cover the field from sideline to sideline and it makes the pre-snap read for the quarterback a little easier. The quarterback is usually looking to take advantage of a flat defender in this type of passing game. Be it a corner in a Cover 2 (two safeties) or a linebacker and/or strong safety in a Cover 3 (one safety) look, the ultimate goal of the offense is to make one of these guys make a choice as to whom he will cover. The key is execution and the quarterback making the right read so that he can get the ball to the right man. Then it is all up to the wide receiver.
Kevin Youngblood (6'5", 219 - Gr.) is the starter at X. After redshirting his first year, he logged nearly 360 snaps as a freshman, but only had 13 catches. His biggest contribution may have been as a key special teams performer.... most notably as a gunner on the punt team. He missed a very promising sophomore year because of a devastating leg injury suffered in the preseason. There were those that thought he might never play again, but he proved his doubters wrong by returning to the lineup last season with 59 receptions in 461 snaps. He was Clemson's Comeback-Player-of-the-Year and a finalist for the Brandon Streeter Award, which is given annually to the Clemson athlete that gained the most success after overcoming an injury. The injury caused Youngblood to miss a lot of practice time and workouts. Because of that, last season may have been more of a learning experience than anything. Not only did he have to work on recovering his speed, strength, and form, he had to find the confidence he once had. It is tough for any player to come back from such a horrific injury without doubting themselves on the field. With a renewed confidence after a successful junior campaign, this season has all the promise in the world for the tallest wide receiver in Clemson history.
Youngblood has the combination of size and athletic ability that recruiters and scouts love to see in a wide receiver. His nearly 220 lb. frame gives him the strength to be physical enough to deal with a cornerback that is in his face, with enough speed to hold his own in the open field. He is very similar to former Clemson wide receiver Rod Gardner, only a little taller and maybe a little faster. And like Gardner, he will be called upon when Clemson needs a go-to guy in a tight situation. What he has to do is improve on his consistency and toughness. Better routes and fewer dropped balls will take care of the consistency. The toughness should be better just because of the confidence of making it through one entire season after the injury. He needs to assert himself as a leader through his words and action if Clemson is to be successful this year.
His backup is the much-ballyhooed Kelvin Grant (6'2", 205 - R/Fr.). He has been one of the most talked about Clemson recruits in some time. The Camden native has impressed coaches and teammates with his performance as a scout teamer last year, and again in the spring led all receivers in the spring game in terms of yardage. He is big enough to be physical, but also has enough speed to make cornerbacks respect him. Swinney has raved about Grant's natural ability and loves to talk about what great hands he has. His 39-inch vertical leap will enable him to take further advantage of his height when battling defensive backs for the ball. The downside is that he is still very raw, has no game experience, and has to deal with a lot of pressure due to the hype surrounding him. Look for Grant to gradually gain more playing time throughout the season as he learns to deal with the speed and pace of the game.
Swinney has tabbed Tony Elliott (6'0", 210 - Gr.) as the starter at Z. The graduate student missed spring practice as he put his industrial engineering degree to work, but he will return for his final season. The former walk-on has worked extremely hard during his time in Clemson as he has fought from scout teamer to starter. He has been the most overlooked wide receiver the last couple of years even though he has shown great consistency as a blocker and receiver. He does not possess great speed and is built more like a linebacker, but he has proven his worth by catching anything thrown his way. He has also been a solid special teams player and will do anything the coaches ask of him. Elliott will most likely continue to be overlooked by many fans and most opponents early in the season. If given the opportunity, he has the desire and drive to make his doubters take notice before his career is done. This is not to say he will have an All-ACC type year, but he could be a guy that steps up to have a solid senior season.
Elliott's listed backup on the depth chart is Michael Collins (6'3", 205 - R/So.). The transfer from Tennessee and cousin of Terry Allen has impressed the staff with his great hands and athleticism. He spent last year practicing with both the football and basketball teams. He is still learning the position after being a high school quarterback and spending his first years at both Tennessee and Clemson on the scout teams. His combination of size and ability will allow him to excel once he learns the position. Swinney seems to be very excited about Collins because he has a great attitude and tons of natural ability. Playing behind a fundamentally sound player like Elliott will be very beneficial for Collins as he continues hone his skills.
Derrick Hamilton (6'4", 200 - R/Jr.) is by far Clemson's most experienced receiver. The man known as Noodle has been on the field for nearly 1200 snaps in his first two seasons. He led the ACC in all-purpose running with 144.8 yards per game last season and his 1883 all-purpose rushing yards is a Clemson record. He was one of only two players in the entire country last season to have at least 200 yards receiving and rushing as well as in punt and kickoff returns. His 77-yarder against Georgia Tech was the longest run for any player in the ACC last season. If he continues on his current pace, Hamilton will be Clemson's career leader in four different categories: receptions, receiving yards, punt return yardage, and kickoff return yardage.
His tall, lanky frame is very deceiving. His elusiveness and shiftiness are uncommon for a player his height. His durability is surprising considering his rather frail looking frame. This combination could enable him to be the greatest WR/returner combo Clemson has ever had by the time he graduates. No one questions his ability to make things happen after he has the ball in his hands. The one problem is that there have been times when it appeared he was relying too much on his God-given talent rather than focusing on the little things that make good wide receivers great. He truly is a playmaker that the coaches want on the field as much as possible, but he needs to work on is his consistency. Running better routes and putting more emphasis on looking the ball in and securing it are two things that Hamilton needs to do if he wants to make the move from being a very good player to a true superstar. The sky is the limit for him if he will take full advantage of his talent.
Hamilton's backup is Curtis Baham (6'1", 195 - R/So.). The Florida native spent his first year at Clemson as a defensive back, but made the switch to wide receiver last year. With only six reps last season, he basically has no game experience. However, he was voted the most improved wide receiver during the spring by the coaching staff. His experience as a defensive back will give him an advantage in recognizing certain coverages and knowing how to counter the different techniques that will be used to stop him. Possibly his greatest asset is his strength. His 21 reps of 225 on the bench press are exceptional for a wide receiver. Swinney seems to think Baham will push for playing time this year. He will, in all likelihood, be one of the first guys off the bench in the wide receiver rotation.
Airese Currie (5'11", 185 - Jr.) is possibly the fastest receiver in Clemson history. His 10.29 time in the 100m this past spring won the NCAA East Regional. That is the type of speed that can quickly turn the tide in a game. Unfortunately for Clemson, it takes more than speed to play the wide receiver position. Like most of the wide receivers, Currie can become a very good player if he learns to catch the ball consistently and run the proper routes. He knows how to use his speed and has used it well at times. The problem is that he has dropped too many balls that should have been caught. When he learns to make those catches, he will go from being a good starter to being a deep threat with all-conference possibilities.
Backing up Currie is walk-on Gene Pate (6'1", 200 - Jr.). Pate has been a scout team player each of the last two years. Most of his time this year should come as a special teams player.
It would appear the X and Z are the positions that the coaches like to place the bigger, more physical wide receivers as they battle smaller cornerbacks. The H and Y seem to be the guys that have the speed and moves to make people miss as they operate around more traffic. Youngblood and Hamilton are proven starters and the first duo in Clemson history to catch over 50 balls apiece in one season. Currie has tons of experience, but has yet to develop into the reliable game breaker everyone hoped he would be when he signed. Elliott is Mr. Reliable. There is nothing fancy about his game, but he always seems to come through. Collins, Grant, and Baham have huge upsides, but they must first learn to play the game. Baham and Grant have the edge because they have more experience at the position. They should be the first two off the bench, but Collins' size and hands will get him on the field soon enough.
The receiving corps is not as deep as many would like to believe and there is a lot of talent that has yet to be tapped. The last couple of years it seems as if the group as a whole has gotten a little lazy. Whether it be blocking, running routes, or catching the ball, the wide receivers have not lived up to their billing although they have still managed to put up some decent numbers and sprinkled in some very good performances. Swinney aims to fix those problems by getting back to the basics and having the guys focus their attention on detail. You can bet that he will have all of the wide receivers catching pass after pass from a Jugs machine when they are not catching passes from a quarterback. The importance of the proper steps and footwork in route running will be stressed more than ever. His job will be made easier by their natural ability to make something happen after they catch the ball. It will enable the coach to focus more on what they need to do in order to get in a position to make the catch. If Swinney can get these guys to dedicate themselves to getting better each and every day, you will see a much improved group of receivers that might finally live up to the hype.