Slot receivers are typically smaller, shiftier athletes who are known for their quickness rather than their length.
But there’s nothing typical about Clemson star Justyn Ross.
The 6-foot-4 redshirt junior, who was a freshman All-American in 2018 and led the Tigers in receptions in 2019, has everything you’re looking for in a wideout.
He’s big, fast, athletic and can change direction on a dime. After starting his career as an outside receiver, Ross will use all of those attributes in the slot this year. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney believes that is the best way to make the most of his freakish athletic ability.
“Justyn’s a threat anywhere ... but we’ve never really just played him at the 5-man (Clemson’s slot) and asked him to really learn that,” Swinney said. “I think it’ll be a great move for Justyn and his future as well, because he’s one of those rare guys with size that can be elite at any position.”
The first step for Ross is to get fully cleared physically.
He missed all of last season after undergoing surgery for a congenital fusion in his spine last June. Ross is practicing but still hasn’t been fully cleared for contact. The hope is that he will be ready by fall camp.
If he is, Ross should be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in 2021. Swinney pointed to the way he can quickly get in and out of breaks and change direction as the biggest reasons why Ross is moving to the slot.
“That’s one of Justyn’s gifts. I mean, he is so gifted. He’s Renfrow-esque when it comes to his lateral ability,” Swinney said, comparing him to former Clemson wideout Hunter Renfrow. “When you’re in there in the slot, it’s quick change of direction. And then you get a big body like that, he’s unique.”
The return of Ross would be a huge addition to a Clemson offense that missed his playmaking ability last year, particularly as Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata battled injuries.
Ross — from Phenix City, Alabama — was expected to be the No. 1 wideout for the Tigers in 2020 before needing surgery. He led Clemson in receiving yards with 1,000 as a freshman in 2018, helping the Tigers win the national title. He was Clemson’s leader in receptions in 2019 with 66 and was expected to be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft before the injury.
“You can just see the ability. I just can’t wait until he’s able to go this season and show people what he can really do,” Tigers starting QB D.J. Uiagalelei said. “Just to see how versatile he is, being 6-3, 6-4, seeing how fast he can move in and out of cuts, it’s insane to see a big guy like that get in and out of cuts and play all over the field.”
Ross will take over for Amari Rodgers in the slot after the Tennessee native led Clemson in receptions and receiving yards last year. Clemson also must replace Cornell Powell, who was second on the team in both categories and came on strong the second half of the 2020 season.
In addition to Ross, Ladson and Ngata are now healthy, while E.J. Williams and Brannon Spector also return. Swinney feels good about the talent and depth at the receiver position, led by Ross.
“We’re back in business there at wideout. It’s unbelievable the depth we have out here,” Swinney said. “I’m super excited about it. We’ve got a great group.”