Andrew Booth’s answer was confident if not predictable.
Asked who’s won the most matchups when defensive backs and receivers go one-on-one against each other during Clemson’s fall camp, the Tigers’ junior cornerback thought for a second. Then he smiled.
“I have won most,” Booth said.
Clemson devotes practice periods during camp specifically to one-on-one matchups on the outside. And with a group of tall, big-bodied wideouts going against a rangy collection of cornerbacks with a blend of experience and young talent, coaches and players say they’re some of the most competitive on the practice field.
That usually brings with it a fair amount of trash talk. Booth said the receivers don’t chirp too much, but if someone is talking, it’s usually sophomore E.J. Williams.
“He’ll let you hear it,” Booth said.
Junior lineman Ruke Orhorhoro has a reputation as perhaps the best trash talker on the Tigers’ defense, though the corners will also engage with the receivers from time to time. Booth said it’s all part of the competitive juices that get to flowing in a setting where the best man wins.
“You’re going to have some of that,” Booth said. “We all hug each other’s necks when we get back in there (after practice).”
The matchups often feature good on good. For Booth, who’s being counted on as a lockdown type this fall, that’s meant plenty of assignments against Williams, Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and Ajou Ajou among others. Mario Goodrich, Sheridan Jones, Fred Davis, Malcolm Greene and Nate Wiggins have also gotten plenty of one-on-one work against a group of receivers that doesn’t lack for physicality.
Even without star wideout Justyn Ross (COVID-19 protocols) unavailable for most of the one-on-one sessions in camp, the corners have still seen plenty of size from the wideouts. Ngata, Ladson, Williams and Ajou are all at least 6-foot-3 while Ngata and Ajou are each north of 220 pounds. Some of the new additions to the wide receiver room have only increased the group’s height with freshmen Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins checking in at 6-3 and 6-5, respectively.
“We get challenged as well as anybody can be challenged on the practice field,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “The receivers, backs, tight ends and quarterbacks, that’s how you get better is through strain, through pain and through failure. It forces you to be on your A game because you get exposed quickly if you’re not ready to go.”
At times, the corners even wear boxing gloves to prevent them from grabbing receivers or tugging their jerseys, which can lead to penalties. Wearing the gloves emphasizes footwork and leverage for the corners, something Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he’s been pleaded with from the group.
“Our technique has improved. Our positioning is a lot better,” Swinney said. “We’re making a lot of plays on the ball. We’ve got a lot of competitive plays, and that’s what you want to see.”
So, yes, the receivers have won their share of one-on-ones, but the victories have gone both ways. Booth, Goodrich, and Jones, all upperclassmen, have combined to play 1,395 snaps during their time at Clemson while Davis and Greene were part of the rotation as true freshmen last season. Wiggins is the only one of the Tigers’ top six corners that hasn’t yet played a down in college, but the true freshman may be the rangiest of the bunch at 6-2.
The group has given the wideouts some good looks, too.
“It’s nice because I’ve got Booth, Fred Davis, Malcolm Greene and all these great corners to go against. They make me better every day,” Ajou said. “So if I can go against them type of guys, I can do it against anybody.”
It’s every man for himself, though. And whether it’s a corner breaking up a pass or a receiver making a catch in front or over the top, the winning side isn’t usually shy about letting the other know about it.
“You better show up every day,” Swinney said. “It’s very competitive out here.”