Sunday, February 18, 2018
Colleges

Tampa Bay pipeline fuels Clemson Tigers' rise

MIAMI — Clemson receiver Artavis Scott's 3-yard touchdown early in the No. 6 Tigers' 58-0 rout of Miami wasn't noteworthy on its own.

To see its importance in Tampa Bay, you have to dig deeper into the blocks and backgrounds to find the ties that stretch from Clearwater and Tampa to a national championship contender 600 miles away.

Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher, Ray-Ray McCloud, brought the Tigers into the red zone with two first-down catches. Then Plant High alumnus Jake Fruhmorgen sealed the inside from his spot at right tackle. That let Scott, a former star at East Lake High, take a pitch outside and dash into the end zone.

The Tigers' second-quarter progression made it clear: Clemson's charge toward playoff contention has a distinct Tampa Bay flavor.

"It's going to be a matter of time," McCloud said, "before Clemson is Tampa Bay U."

A handful of contributors from Tampa Bay aren't the sole reason the Tigers (7-0, 4-0 ACC) are the ACC favorites — at least before next month's showdown with No. 9 Florida State.

They were so all-around dominant that they led 42-0 at halftime. UM's first-half highlight was a career-long 73-yard punt by Berkeley Prep alumnus Justin Vogel. Even Clemson's third-string quarterback, Kelly Bryant, ran untouched for a 59-yard touchdown in the worst loss in 'Canes history.

If Saturday was a testament to how far the 'Canes (4-3, 1-2) have fallen since their national championship days, it was also a statement victory for a Clemson team that has already shown it can compete with in-state powers on the recruiting trails of Florida's Gulf Coast.

"I think the Tiger paw's looking better and better each time we come down here and have success," said Jeff Scott, Clemson's recruiting coordinator and receivers coach.

At least some of that success Saturday came from the four Tampa Bay products wearing those paws on their bright orange helmets.

Necessity thrust the three receivers — McCloud, Scott and Deon Cain — into more prominent roles. The Tigers had last year's leading receiver, Mike Williams, for less than four minutes before he fractured his neck by colliding with a goal post in the season opener.

With Williams out, Tampa Bay's receivers took turns lighting up defenses.

McCloud filled Williams' void in the opener by leading the team with eight catches for 80 yards in his first college game. He followed that Saturday with four catches for 36 yards and a 15-yard end-around rush that set up the Tigers' fifth score.

"He just made the plays," Artavis Scott said. "He lives for these moments."

Even if he hasn't always lived for this position.

McCloud spent most of his life as a running back and rushed for 5,765 yards at Sickles High. Clemson initially recruited him as a defensive back before deciding his speed and 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame fit better at receiver.

The Tigers eventually hope to mesh him into the same running back-receiver hybrid that made Sammy Watkins the No. 4 overall pick of the NFL draft.

"He has a chance to be really special," his position coach said.

So, too, does Cain, even if he didn't play Saturday because of a coaching decision related to his attitude.

Cain shined two weeks ago with 96 yards and nabbed an acrobatic sideline catch in a 19-point win over Georgia Tech. Only seven true freshmen in the country entered Saturday with more receiving yards per game than Cain (43.8). His 13 catches are seven more than he had in high school, where he starred as Tampa Bay Tech's quarterback.

The third true freshman has been unsung but not unnoticed. Fruhmorgen enrolled early at Clemson, where a nagging shoulder injury slowed his initial development. He progressed enough that coaches felt comfortable throwing him into the red zone Saturday before the game got out of hand.

"He's going to be a phenomenal right tackle for us for three years," left guard Eric Mac Lain said.

But Artavis Scott has been the leader, living up to his four-star billing by building on last year's strong freshman season.

He entered Saturday as the only receiver ranked among the ACC's top three in catches, touchdowns and yards. He torched the nation's top defense last week with 10 catches for 162 yards in a 34-17 win over Boston College. He nearly added another touchdown catch against the 'Canes but had to settle for the first rushing score of his career.

As important, Scott has mentored Cain and McCloud on the details of the position, helping the raw talents understand when to cut, when to cut with speed and when to fade away.

"He's teaching me the ropes," McCloud said.

Scott is only Clemson's latest transformative recruit from Florida.

The Tigers landed the state's top 2006 recruit, running back C.J. Spiller, out of Union County. Five years later, the Tigers plucked Watkins, a five-star receiver, from Fort Myers.

"It kind of all started with Sammy Watkins down in Fort Myers ..." said Jeff Scott, also the Tigers' co-offensive coordinator. "When Artavis Scott goes home, he sees his buddies that are top players and says he loves his experience at Clemson. They want to come up and visit and see what it's all about."

When Cain and McCloud began considering joining Artavis Scott at Clemson, Scott said he didn't have to tell his friends much.

"Clemson speaks for itself," he said.

That message attracted Scott, the Tampa Bay Times' 2013 Pinellas County Player of the Year. In February, it landed three of the area's top six recruits — Fruhmorgen, McCloud and Cain — while Florida and Florida State signed one total.

And it doesn't seem to be going away, either. The Tigers have already landed an oral commitment from Plant City receiver T.J. Chase, a four-star prospect and Tampa Bay's No. 2 recruit. If Clemson continues to rack up performances like Saturday's in the backyard of the state's power programs, the pipeline won't be shutting off anytime soon.

"Of course I'd like to keep it going," Artavis Scott said. "That's a great start."

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

 
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