Oftentimes, Dabo Swinney can draw comparisons between some of his players and other former players he coached in the past that the current players remind him of.
But when it comes to true freshman wide receiver Ajou Ajou, whom Swinney has called a “freakish” talent, he is unlike anyone Swinney has coached in more than a decade as Clemson’s head coach.
“Really have not had a guy like him,” Swinney said on Tuesday. “A lot of times I can say like (freshman wide receiver) Frank Ladson, he’s very similar to Martavis Bryant – same body type, that unbelievable speed, just gifted athlete. A lot of times I can kind of have some glimpses of former players with some of these guys. But I’ve never really had a guy like Ajou.”
The 6-foot-3 Ajou has a rare combination of size and speed, and his immense potential is undeniable, though he has a great deal to learn and is still getting adjusted to the speed of the game in big-time college football.
“He’s 220 pounds, he can run,” Swinney said. “You don’t realize how fast he is because he’s so gangly. He’s got incredible ball skills, and he’s had a couple moments in the game, but the game is really, really fast for him right now – really fast, in every aspect, because it’s just so much for him to grasp.”
A native of Brooks, Alberta, Ajou played only two seasons of prep football – one in Canada and one at Florida’s Clearwater Academy as a senior in 2019 – so he is very raw and arrived on Clemson’s campus this summer with less of a football knowledge base than a typical incoming freshman with years of experience playing American football.
“Just a lot of the simple things, whether it be what the defense is trying to do, stance, technique at the position and understanding verbage and terminology,” Swinney said of the things Ajou is having to learn. “Again, he grew up in Canada. He was rarely in a stance – he always had a running start. … But what I love about him is watching his tape – because he’s played a long time in Canada – and you watch any of his tape and there’s three feet of snow, and he’s out there, he’s tough. He loves football. You’ve got to love football to play football in three feet of snow, and that’s your norm.
“But he’s a tough kid. But just details, fundamentals, drill work and route running, break points – literally taking this kid who’s got all this talent and trying to just teach him a new language almost. So, it’s going to be a lot of fun to develop him.”
Ajou’s coachability, and understanding that he needs to be coached, are characteristics that Swinney loves to see in a player as gifted as Ajou.
“What I love about Ajou is his self-awareness,” Swinney said. “Because he’s this uber talented guy, but he knows that he has so much to learn, and he’s not afraid of that. He’s not embarrassed by that, he’s not too cool for school, because he is a very unique guy.”
While Ajou has a steeper learning curve than most, he flashed his upside in No. 1 Clemson’s 73-7 win at Georgia Tech last Saturday when he caught a simple screen pass, broke several tackles and fought through another defender for a highlight-reel 35-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, his first career score.
Ajou nearly recorded another touchdown reception on Clemson’s previous possession when he made an athletic grab near the corner of the end zone. However, after initially being ruled a touchdown, the call was reversed upon replay review as it was determined his feet hit the pylon, which is considered out of bounds, before the ball crossed the goal line.
“I was so happy for him,” Swinney said of Ajou’s performance against the Yellow Jackets. “First of all, the first one – what a great play he made on that first catch. It was so close. I was so disappointed when we didn’t get to keep it. So, that was pretty cool to see him take a screen and go 30-something yards, just knees and elbows flying all over the field. He was just so relentless to get to the end zone.”
Swinney knew from the first time he laid eyes on Ajou at one of Clemson’s high school football camps in the summer of 2019 that he would be a developmental project but had the chance to be special, and Tiger fans got a glimpse Saturday of what the future holds for the tremendous talent who also played basketball and set track and field records in high jumping in Edmonton.
“I said that the first time I saw him in camp going into his senior year, I was like, ‘This kid will be one of the funnest guys that I’ll have a chance to coach because he just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but yet he’s got it all in front of him,” Swinney said. “He’s one of those guys, he’s a developmental guy. A little patience with him, just keep pouring water on him, you’re going to look up here in a couple years and everybody’s going to know who Ajou is. He has that in him.
“But I love his spirit, I love his work ethic. He loves to be coached, and again, he’s got great self-awareness and he’s not afraid to put in the work to get better. He’s made a ton of progress since he got here, but his natural ability is pretty special. It’s unique. I think he’s got some kind of record up there in Canada for his high jump. His vertical is ridiculous. His length, just off the charts. He’s a work in progress, so it was great to see him have a moment like that (against Georgia Tech) because that’s going to do a lot for his confidence. So, he’s going to be a guy that will be a big-time factor for us as we continue to move through this season, but certainly the rest of his career.”
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