TAMPA — Clemson knew after last season’s loss in the National Championship Game that its reload at the skill positions would put them right back in contention for the ultimate prize. Now that the trophy is coming home with the Tigers to South Carolina, let’s ask the question again:
Does Clemson have the talent on the outside to make a third straight National Championship Game appearance?
It’s too soon to answer that question definitively. What is certain, though, is that their wide receiver corps next fall will be headlined by Deon Cain.
Both wide receiver Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett were this year’s cornerstones. All they did on Monday was prove why they were two of the nation’s best at their position with big plays on the Tigers’ final few drives that allowed Clemson to dethrone Alabama.
Their bittersweet departures pave the way for Cain to come in and be the next go-to guy in a star-studded Clemson laundry list of receivers.
Hello, Mr. Cain.
This season’s path to a title hinged heavily on offensive experience. Now, the losses of the aforementioned pair of Leggett and Williams, not to mention quarterback Deshaun Watson, will set back the Tigers quite a bit as head coach Dabo Swinney and his club take the next few
days weeks months to celebrate.
That doesn’t mean that the offense won’t have a primary receiver in fall 2017. Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott expects that the void will be filled by the 6-foot-1 Cain.
“Yeah, I think he will be,” Scott said in reference to if Cain will be the go-to guy as a junior next season. “I think he’s in a lot better position this year obviously than he was last year. Before he’s really ready to go out there and be the man, be the starter, I think he still has a little bit of work to do this spring, which is normal.”
If it takes a growth cycle to become “the man” in 2017, Cain has already answered the bell.
The Tampa native has taken a unique path in his rise to becoming one of the more gifted receivers in the country. A year ago during the team’s playoff push, Cain was sent home after he failed a drug test. There were concerns regarding his stance with the program, yet Swinney brought him back with open arms due to his maturation process.
And when the head coach was asked about which player he’d like to see be a catalyst during the National Championship, he referenced Cain — and boy did he deliver.
The sophomore finished with five catches to the tune of 94 yards — a couple of those grabs came at crucial points during the win. He flashed his agility in the open field during the second quarter on a screen pass from Watson — juking a plethora of Crimson Tide defenders along the way — for a 43-yard gain. It loomed large, too, because it aided in Clemson’s offense putting points on the board for the first time all night.
That closed the curtain on a 38-catch, 724-yard, nine-touchdown campaign amid a receiving corps that needed its touches distributed among the supply of weapons that Watson had at his disposal this season — six guys caught at least 35 passes for 470 yards or more this year.
Peeking ahead to next season (already), there won’t be as much experience. Cain — along with Hunter Renfrow and Artavis Scott — will be the primary pieces for Swinney’s offense. But you can expect Cain to be the straw that stirs the drink in 2017.