- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Dabo Swinney said before the season that a lot of people would be asking him about Clemson's new receiving corps by the end of the year. Consider the Tigers' pass-catchers ahead of schedule.
Gone are Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant from last season. So, too, are DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown from the year before. But the depth of this young group has been evident through five games, with three different players catching 15 or more passes, and six different players hauling in touchdowns.
Clemson leads the ACC in passing, averaging 335.8 yards per game, and the unit figures to only grow as the schedule eases and the adjustment to bigger roles continues.
"Not surprised, because we had a couple of them here this spring, Demarre Kitt and Artavis (Scott) came in January, I think that really helped those guys and I'm proud of then," Swinney said. "They're doing a nice job for us. Some of our young tight ends continue to develop. I really like the fact that we've been able to involve our running backs in the passing game as well, and a young guy like Germone Hopper, who's not a freshman, he's a sophomore, been around here a couple years, I think he's been a huge addition as well, and it's really just him he's finally bought into the way we do things here at Clemson. It's really good to see these him reap those rewards from buying in and working hard and being committed to being a great player."
Hopper has been a big-play threat, catching eight balls for 233 yards and two scores. Mike Williams has led the group, with the sophomore hauling in 21 catches for 520 yards and four touchdowns. He is tied with seven other ACC players for the league lead in receiving scores, and within the conference he trails just Florida State's Rashad Greene (576) in receiving yards and Miami's Phillip Dorsett in yards per catch (31.3).
Williams said he had a goal this season of reaching 1,000 yards receiving, something that appears well within reach with at least seven games remaining. He celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday in a 41-0 win over NC State by hauling in six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the game's first six minutes.
"I felt good," said Williams, who said he told quarterback Deshaun Watson before the game that he wanted two scores as a gift. "I felt like I played one of my best games here at Clemson on my birthday, so that was all pretty good."
Williams said Watson, the true freshman signal-caller, has been instrumental in the receivers' growth, from pulling players aside in practice to taking control in offseason 7-on-7 work.
"That's where the chemistry's developed," Swinney said, "the nuances of your passing game, and those guys spending that extra time, getting just reps, because ultimately it's about reps and just the chemistry that comes from getting those reps together is critical."
Scott is second on the Tigers in receptions (18), yards (305) and receiving touchdowns (three). He arrived to campus this past January with Watson, and the two are roommates. But the freshman admitted he did not envision this much success this soon for an offense facing so much personnel turnover, though it helped having eventual NFL receivers offer him advice on his visit and again around draft time.
"I talked to Sammy and Martavis," Scott said of last year's go-to threats. "They told me when you come in here to be ready, because you'll get an opportunity and when it comes take full advantage. Do the things you know you can do. Don't overthink it."