Justyn Ross’ return has been a methodical one.
After missing all of the 2020 season because of spinal fusion surgery that threatened his playing days at one point, Clemson’s star wideout has gradually gotten back into the routine. He leads the Tigers in catches (38), yards (416) and touchdown receptions (3), though the bar hasn’t been set all that high for an offense that still ranks in the hundreds nationally in yards and points heading into Saturday’s game at Louisville.
Ross is still working to regain the form from early in his career when he combined for 112 catches for 1,865 yards during his freshman and sophomore seasons, making a case as college football’s top wideout two years into his Clemson career. He had five catches last week in the Tigers’ win over Florida State, but while that number may appear pedestrian, it was a showing that was as explosive and consistent as any the former five-star signee has had this season.
And it came almost exclusively at his more natural outside position.
With quality depth at receiver heading into the season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced in the spring Ross would move from the outside to the slot in order to try to get the Tigers’ best receivers on the field at the same time. The Tigers were still going to move him around to different spots, but, ideally, the plan was for Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. to be Clemson’s primary outside receivers.
Ladson recently underwent season-ending surgery on his groin. And with E.J. Williams, another option in the slot, also banged up some this season, Ross has largely remained inside. But Williams returned from his knee injury against the Seminoles while freshman Beaux Collins has also emerged in the slot, so for the first time this season, Ross got most of his snaps back outside.
His first catch there went for 18 yards on a screen pass. Late in the second quarter, on a free play in which FSU jumped offsides, Uiagalelei spotted Ross isolated on a corner and threw it up to him. Ross hauled it in for a 19-yard catch. Ross again had man coverage to the field early in the fourth quarter with the Tigers facing third-and-6 at their own 34-yard line. Uiagalelei went to him with a back-shoulder throw, and Ross spun around for a 25-yard snag — his longest catch of the day — that moved Clemson into FSU territory.
“Ross is probably most comfortable on the outside just because that’s where he started his career, but we moved him to the inside because we had a bunch of guys coming into the season,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “He’s had to play all of (the receiver positions), but I think you saw just some of the things, if you watched him, he was playing a lot faster. He was much better with his releases. He was making the back-shoulder catch. So it was good to see him back out there on the perimeter.”
Ross has had more catches in other games this season. He had seven receptions against Georgia Tech and a season-high eight at North Carolina State, but his 15 yards per catch Saturday was his highest average of the season.
Still, Clemson’s coaches aren’t ready to keep Ross exclusively on the outside. Swinney said they will continue moving him around to try to find matchups the Tigers can exploit.
“He’s really done that his whole career,” Swinney said. “If you go back, one of his biggest plays early in his freshman year was from the slot. So we’ve moved him around, and we’ll continue to do that.
“I thought Ross had a heck of a game last week. Made some plays that either we’ve missed the throw or we just hadn’t finished the catch when the throw was there consistently. So it was really good to see that last week. He’s a guy that we’ll continue to formation him where we need him to be.”
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