There is a reason why Clemson’s Ray-Ray McCloud seems to be having a better season when it comes to returning punts.
“Well, he is catching the ball,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Catching punts or hanging on to the football has been an issue for McCloud in the return game the previous two seasons. Of course there is the infamous dropping the ball at the one-yard line as he crossed the goal line a year ago on what would have been a 75-yard touchdown against Troy. Instead, it was a 74-yard return with a fumble that Troy recovered for a touchback.
He also muffed a couple of punts that led to points for Georgia Tech and Boston College.
“Probably some of ya’ll sitting here are wondering why we still have him back there,” Swinney said during his weekly press conference earlier this week. “But I believe in Ray-Ray. I know what he can do.”
What McCloud can do, when focused, is make those jaw-dropping plays that leave fans and the second-ranked Tigers’ opponents wondering what just happened.
“You see something in practice and then dadgum you are so frustrated because for some reason it is not transitioning to the game field, yet,” Swinney said. “So as a coach you have to make a decision. Do you hang in there with that guy or do you fire him and move on to the next guy?”
Swinney decided to hang in there with McCloud and it seems it is starting to pay off. McCloud currently ranks 10th in the country in punt return yards with 152 yards on 15 returns. In just six games, he is just 25 yards shy of beating his total for all of last year.
McCloud has already returned three punts for more than 20 yards, including a 56-yard return against Boston College. His 23-yard return against Wake Forest last week set up Hunter Johnson’s touchdown pass to tight end Cannon Smith to ice the game for the Tigers.
“I think it is a matter of time before as a unit, we break one loose,” McCloud said. “It’s all up to God. We are usually just one shoe lace or tackle away from scoring and I know it will happen sooner or later.”
Though Swinney admits to firing McCloud a couple of times during games last year, he has never given up on him, which is why he has continued to come back to him time and time again.
“I love Ray-Ray. I think Ray-Ray is just kind of blossoming and coming into his own,” the Clemson coach said. “I thought he played maybe one of his best games last week. He was our downfield blocker of the week. He had some yards after contact and some extra effort yards on some plays that maybe did not look like a big play, but it was a big play. He got four more yards or five more yards just with his extra effort, his balance.
“His confidence now is really, really high. He has worked very hard.”
Swinney says the difference in McCloud is his maturity. Not his maturity as a person, but his maturity as a football player – his work habits and his drive to get better.
“I don’t think he had quite the maturity to match his talent when he first got here,” Swinney said. “He has always had the talent, but I just don’t think he had quiet the maturity. Now he is a great kid, I’m talking about just what it was going to take as a football player. The type of mindset you have to have at this level and how you have to work at those little things.
“A lot of things have always just come natural to him and he took it for granted a little bit. Then all of a sudden you get out there and you get exposed. If you don’t have quite that mindset, that is what happens.”
But Swinney and McCloud’s position coach, co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott, noticed how hard McCloud was working in the off-season to get better. How he was leading his teammates and pushing everyone to get better.
“I think he has worked so hard at that aspect of it this whole past year. I’m just really proud of him,” Swinney said. “He is a weapon. He can change a game with one play. That is something he has bought into. I think early on he was like, ‘Okay, I’ll go back here and catch a punt.’ But now he has really bought into ‘You know what, I can change a game here.’
“He is making good decisions and he has learned through some of his failures. Now he has had some success so he kind of has his swag. I love that right now. He had two big ones called back with penalties or he would even be higher. We are excited about where he is right now from an execution standpoint and from a mindset standpoint. Hopefully, he can continue to bring that to the table.”