Clemson had 'high expectations' for one of its healthy receivers. Now he's hardly playing.

Clemson had 'high expectations' for one of its healthy receivers. Now he's hardly playing.

Football

Clemson had 'high expectations' for one of its healthy receivers. Now he's hardly playing.

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Before the season started, Dabo Swinney talked glowingly about a receiving corps that he believed was as talented as any Clemson has had in his 13 years as the Tigers’ head coach. Included in that group was a player he singled out as one of the most improved on the Tigers’ offense.

He wasn’t talking about the headliner, Justyn Ross. Nor was it former five-star signees Joseph Ngata or E.J. Williams. It wasn’t another former blue-chip recruit, Frank Ladson Jr., either.

Swinney was talking about sophomore Ajou Ajou.

“Ajou? It’s incredible where he is,” Swinney said during fall camp. “He is going to help us in a big way.”

That hasn’t been the case.

Ajou has fallen further down the depth chart even as it continues to thin out. Receiver has been a position hit as hard as any by the string of bad luck Clemson has had with injuries. Ross, Ngata, Ladson and Williams began the season as the Tigers’ top four wideouts, but Williams is the only one that could be available when Clemson squares off against South Carolina on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium in its regular-season finale. Even that’s in question after Williams sustained a freak leg injury last week that forced him to miss the Wake Forest game.

Still, playing time has been hard to come by for Ajou, who began the season as a backup to Ngata and Ladson on the outside but has caught just five passes for 71 yards in 11 games. His last reception is more than a month old (against Pittsburgh on Oct. 23).

That level of production doesn’t exactly match the praise heaped on Ajou four months ago as a fall-camp standout.

“We certainly had high expectations for him as basically a freshman again, but as we got going and getting into some of the details and stuff, he just hit a wall at some point during the season,” Swinney said Wednesday.

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Ajou fits in with the rest of the Tigers’ tall, big-bodied receivers from a physical standpoint. He got his feet wet last fall after signing with Clemson as part of the Tigers’ 2020 recruiting class, catching two passes in 10 games. Ajou then capped a promising spring with a six-catch, 102-yard showing in Clemson’s spring game, momentum that seemed to carry over to the fall.

But it’s the mental part of the game where Ajou is still working on those details the most.

When Ladson was lost early to a season-ending groin injury, Ajou got his first career start against Syracuse on Oct. 15 but had some missed blocks on the perimeter. He started again the next week at Pitt and caught a 36-yard pass in the first half but again struggled to adjust some of his blocking assignments based on what the Panthers’ defense was showing, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.

“That’s things that a guy with experience is able to work through,” Elliott said then. “He’s got to see that. Even though you show it to him in practice, it happens faster in real time.”

Fast forward to Clemson’s game at Louisville on Nov. 6. When Ngata went out in the second half with a foot injury that’s kept him sidelined since, true freshman Dacari Collins got most of the reps in his place on the outside. The same thing happened when Ross aggravated a stress fracture in his foot early against Connecticut the following week, an injury that might have ended his collegiate career.

Collins finished that game with six catches for 97 yards and got his first career start in Clemson’s win over Wake Forest last week. Should Williams not be able to give it a go again this weekend, the Tigers’ top three receivers for Saturday’s game would be Collins, Beaux Collins and Will Swinney, who started in the slot last week.

Ajou has logged just 34 snaps over the last four games.

“He’s had a couple of opportunities and a couple of starts, and Dacari has just moved ahead right now,” Swinney said following the UConn game. “We love him, but it’s where where we are. Those guys have taken advantage of their opportunities.”

Given how frequent the attrition has been at receiver, Swinney said Ajou is going to need to stay ready should the Tigers need him to play more significant snaps down the stretch. Swinney said Ajou has “picked it up a little bit” with his performance in practice the last few weeks, but that major step the Tigers were hoping would come in Ajou’s development this season will likely have to wait.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do with him,” Swinney said.

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