What made Sammy Watkins great as a college wide receiver was his ability to breakaway at the line of scrimmage and get open down field. He also had this ability to catch the ball and then hit another gear as he ran away from the defense.
Deandre Hopkins wasn’t as fast as Watkins, but he was tougher. Like Watkins, he could get open down the field, but he used his physical strength and size to separate from a defender. Hopkins was also crafty. He ran more precise routes and always found the open spot in zone coverage.
You will not get much of an argument by saying Watkins and Hopkins are easily the two best wide receivers Clemson has ever had and they both have the numbers to back it up. They are the standard at Clemson when it comes to playing the wide receiver position.
But what if I told you there is a guy already on the roster, who has a little bit of both in him. Like Watkins, he is fast, shifty and has the ability to take the football to the house every time he touches it. However, he is also like Hopkins, too. He is physical, crafty and is very competitive.
“I get a lot of those questions when trying to compare guys,” Clemson wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “My big message to our guys, and to anyone that has asked about them, is these guys are all different.”
Deon Cain is different, but what makes him so different is that he plays at times like Sammy Watkins and the rest of the time like Deandre Hopkins.
For example, think of all the explosive plays Cain has had in his two-year career to this point. Half of his touchdowns are over 30 yards to this point. He can go get the ball and take it away from the defender like he did against South Carolina as a freshman as well as catch a tunnel screen and take it 38 yards for a touchdown like he did against Florida State that same year. He also had a 67-yard catch-and-run against Boston College and Georgia Tech.
Also, let’s not forget the big third-down catch he went up and got on the game-winning drive against Louisville last season. That play covered 24 yards and set up Jordan Leggett’s game-winner on the next play.
The most impressive play of Cain’s career came in the 2017 College Football National Championship Game against Alabama. With the Tigers’ trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, he took a screen pass from Deshaun Watson on the far side of the field and then weaved his way through the Alabama defense for a 43-yard gain. When he finally got pushed out of bounds, he had made his way all the way over to the near side of the field.
The play set up Watson’s touchdown run a few plays later and got the Tigers’ offense going as Clemson outscored Alabama 35-17 from that point on.
“There are parts of what Deon does that reminds me of Sammy as far as being able to get open downfield and have the big play capability,” Scott said. “But also, Deon has some Deandre Hopkins in him. He is a tough, physical kid. Whenever he gets between those white lines, there is a competitive fire that reminds me a lot of Nuk whenever he was here.”
So far in his career, which has been as a reserve player, Cain has used his Watkins-and-Hopkins like skills to average 18.1 yards per catch. He has scored 14 touchdowns already, including nine last season.
“The biggest thing, and again going back to how we talk to our guys and get them to think, is we do not want them to compare themselves to anybody,” Scott said. “We want them to worry about being the very best version of themselves. So that is really what we talk about it.”
And Cain’s best version of himself has been 72 catches for 1,306 yards. Seven of his 14 career touchdowns have been 33 yards or longer.
“He definitely has some of the traits of several of the top talented guys that we have had in the past,” Scott said.
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