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Can Cain, McCloud be mentally tough when it matters most?

What made players like Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett so great at Clemson was the way they always seemed to step up and make plays late when the Tigers needed them the most.

Take the national championship game for example. Hunter Renfrow may have made the game-winning catch in Clemson’s 35-31 win over Alabama, but it was Williams and Leggett that made the two biggest plays on the drive that put the Tigers in position to score in the first place.

Williams went up and snared a 24-yard catch to open up the drive, while Leggett made an acrobatic catch for a 17-yard gain that pushed the ball to the Alabama 9-yard line. Williams was then the target in the end zone when Alabama was charged with a pass interference penalty to move the ball to the 2-yard line with six seconds to play to set up Deshaun Watson’s game-winning throw to Renfrow with one second to play in the game.

Can you imagine how things might have ended for Clemson had Williams and Leggett, and even Renfrow for that matter, were mentally and physically tired on that final drive?

“When you get tired late in practice and we are doing third down drills, and it is basically like a fourth-quarter situation, can you push through and make those plays in the clutch,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott said.

That’s what Williams, Leggett and Renfrow did a lot last season for the Tigers when they needed a big play late in the game. But before they did it against Louisville, NC State, Florida State and Alabama, they had to show they could do it in practice first.

With Williams and Leggett gone to the NFL, Scott, along with fellow co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, is looking for guys like Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and Milan Richard to step up in practice, especially late, and prove they can be someone they can count on in the clutch.

“Some of those guys last year, like a Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett on that last drive, we are a hundred plays in and those guys are able to execute at a high level when their team needs them,” Scott said. “That is the biggest thing for guys like Ray-Ray and Deon that are trying to take that next step as they go from being a part-time player to a full-time player and being in a starting role.

“That is the biggest thing and I have seen improvement in both of them. A lot of that is being consistent in the way they practice from the beginning, all the way to the end.”

Cain and McCloud have both made big plays for the Tigers in the past. McCloud was unstoppable in Clemson’s win over Georgia Tech last season as he caught 8 passes for 101 yards, while Cain’s 43-yard catch-and-run in the national championship game turned the momentum of the game and got the Clemson offense rolling.

However, Scott said there were times last year when Cain and McCloud might start a game fast, but at the end, they fizzled out and weren’t really a factor as much late. That is something as starters they cannot do this coming season.

“They would get tired and start to wear down a little bit and then their mental focus and execution suffers a little bit,” Scott said.

But Scott noticed in the spring how both players took that to heart and made big strides in improving their focus and mental toughness late in practice.

“I have been proud of the way both of those guys have practiced,” Scott said.

Now the question is can they continue to do get better and do it when 80,000 people are watching and the game is on the line.

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