With Clemson’s mammoth opener against Georgia less than two weeks away, The Clemson Insider is going to spend some time taking a closer look at some of the position matchups that could go a long way in determining the outcome of that Sept. 4 clash at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Next up is Clemson’s receivers against Georgia’s secondary. TCI previously analyzed matchups between the Tigers’ offensive line and the Bulldogs’ defensive front and vice versa.
Note: If only one number is listed in parentheses beside a player’s name, that means that player hasn’t started a game. The number listed is how many career games he has played. If no numbers are listed for a player, he has yet to play a game.
Clemson’s projected receiver rotation: Justyn Ross, Jr (29 games played, 14 starts); Joseph Ngata, Jr (22, 3); Frank Ladson Jr., Jr (25, 4); E.J. Williams, Soph (12, 4); Ajou Ajou, Soph (10); Brannon Spector, Soph (14, 1); Dacari Collins, Fr; Beaux Collins, Fr
A deep receiving corps added more depth and an injection of top-line talent with the return of Ross, who received full medical clearance earlier this summer following his corrective spinal fusion surgery that cost him all of the 2020 season.
A 6-foot-4, 205-pound wideout with the speed and ball skills to boot, Ross is a first-round talent with big-play capabilities when he’s at full tilt as shown by his 1,865 receiving yards and 17 scoring grabs in his first two seasons at Clemson. Ross missed the first week of fall camp going through COVID-19 protocols, so will less than three weeks of full contact be enough to have him up to speed for his first game action in more than a year?
According to Ross, it will, and the early returns on his practice reps have been positive. But it’s not like Ross is the only wideout Georgia will have to game plan for.
Like Ross, Ngata is a former five-star recruit while Ladson drew rave reviews from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney for his camp performance. Both are expected to take on larger roles within the offense this fall after combining for just 51 career catches so far as long as they can stay healthy, which has already been a recurring issue for Ngata. He battled a hamstring injury during camp and missed both of the Tigers’ scrimmages, though Swinney said late last week Ngata was close to being back at full speed.
Williams is another potential breakout candidate for the Tigers after stepping in to make four starts as a true freshman and finishing last season with 24 catches. The same could be said for Ajou, who coaches and teammates are high on. Dacari Collins and Beaux Collins were both four-star signees who were also mentioned as playmakers during camp, so offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has no shortage of options and lineups to play with out wide.
Georgia’s projected starting defensive backs
CB Derion Kendrick, Sr. (24, 23 at Clemson the last two seasons)
SS Christopher Smith, Sr (29, 5)
FS Lewis Cine, Jr (24, 12)
CB Ameer Speed, Sr (35) or Kelee Ringo, RFr
NICKEL Latavious Brini, Sr (17, 1)
Clemson’s receivers are already somewhat familiar with what the Bulldogs have to offer in the secondary — and vice versa — with Kendrick now suiting up for the Bulldogs. An all-ACC first-team selection last season, Kendrick spent the previous three seasons at Clemson before being dismissed from the team and landing at Georgia, where he’ll line up against the receivers he used to practice against on a daily basis.
Kendrick is joining a secondary that isn’t exactly green. Every projected starter on the Bulldogs’ back end is an upperclassmen with three of them being seniors, including Speed, who will likely step into a starting role for the first time at the other corner spot after spending most of his first four seasons in Athens as a special-teams contributor.
Georgia added even more experience to the group in West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith. An AP All-American last season, Smith has been heavily in the mix for the starting job at nickel, but he recently sustained a foot injury that required surgery and likely won’t be available for the opener.
That would put Brini at the top of the depth chart there by default, though he’s not a newbie either. Cine, a preseason all-SEC pick at safety, started every game last season while Smith started the last five.
This one is interesting for a few reasons.
First, the units have similar experience in that both at least have at least one player (Ross for Clemson and Kendrick and Cine for Georgia) with a season’s worth of starting experience and a bunch of others that have been biding their time. And then there’s the size. A lot of it.
The majority of Clemson’s receivers are at least 6-3 with Dacari Collins being the tallest at 6-5. Ross has gotten most of his game reps at the boundary and field positions, but Clemson plans to use him in the slot this season as well to try to find more mismatches for him.
Yet if there’s a secondary that has the height to match up well with that, it’s Georgia’s. Kendrick isn’t exactly a short corner at 6-0, but he’s on the lower end compared to Speed (6-3), Ringo (6-2) and Brini (6-2).
And with Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei in line to make just his third career start, what’s the Bulldogs’ plan of attack against him? Do they sell out to stop the run and try to make the young signal caller beat them? Or will they be more hesitant to do that given the way Uiagalelei lit it up in the two starts he made last season, including more than 400 yards passing and no turnovers at Notre Dame?
The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, though some success from Clemson’s running game would go a long way in possibly forcing Georgia to commit another defender or two to the box and create more one-on-one matchups on the outside. In all likelihood, though, Clemson’s wideouts will see a mix of man and zone coverages.
The Tigers have the athletes on the outside to win against just about anything they get. Georgia could argue the same. Finding the most advantageous matchups — Clemson’s speed isolated on a safety, perhaps? — could determine which wins more often.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!