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CFP National Championship Clemson Alabama Football

Clemson's Justyn Ross makes a one-handed catch in front of Alabama's Josh Jobe during the second half in Monday night's championship game in Santa Clara, Calif.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has a knack of signing not only the top recruits in the nation, but signing the players that can help his team win immediately.

Whether it was C.J. Spiller, Deshaun Watson or, this year’s phenom, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Swinney seems to always be able to sign the guy that will be a problem for opposing teams.

This season, in addition to Lawrence, the one player having had as big an impact as anyone on the team is true freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross — a 6-foot-4, dynamic wide receiver who finished the national championship game with a team-high 153 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“I mean, the moment we recruited him, we knew he'd be a tough matchup not just for Alabama, for anybody we played,” Swinney said. “But what a night. I mean, he's just a guy that I thought early in the season – I mean, he was unbelievable in camp and the early part of the season, and then thought he hit a little bit of a wall because it's tough, man.”

Ross was sitting in high school in Phenix City, Alabama, last season at this time, which makes the transformation this season all the more impressive.

"I mean, it's just a different when you go from being the most dominant guy on the field to now every day at practice is like the Super Bowl because you're going against some elite talent. And then he just kind of got his second wind, and these last five games probably, he has been unbelievable.”

Ross put on a show for the nation in Monday night’s national championship game, making two catches that earned him the No. 7 and No. 1 spots on ESPN’s Top 10 plays.

But for Swinney, those two catches were indicative of what he saw all season.

“The catches that you saw him make tonight, those are routine for him,” Swinney said. “I mean, it's just amazing. I told Trevor, I said, could you quit throwing crappy balls so he don't have to show off like that and make some of those crazy catches? But that's what he can do.”

Maybe more impressive than the fact that Ross put on such a show was the fact that he did it against his home-state team.

Ross was the nation’s No. 2-ranked wide receiver and the No. 1 player in Alabama — making him a sure fire pickup for the Nick Saban-led Crimson Tide. That was until Swinney and the Clemson Tigers came calling.

Ross ultimately chose to sign with Clemson, making him the first top-ranked player from Alabama to sign with Clemson and just the second top-ranked player in Alabama since 2005 not signing with Alabama.

“And for this kid from Alabama to have the opportunity to beat Alabama for the national championship,” Swinney said. “I mean, listen, I know exactly how he feels for sure, and it was something we talked about in the recruiting process. And he wanted to be a part of this, and he wanted to come play with Trevor. He wanted to be a part of our tradition that we have at the receiver position, and you know, he didn't mind coming in and jumping in line behind Tee (Higgins) and kind of earning his way.”

The scary thing for opposing teams facing next year’s Clemson team is the majority of the offensive power that made the 2018 unit one of the most dynamic offenses in school history will be back.

Joining Ross and Lawrence will be running back Travis Etienne, Higgins, wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Derion Kendrick, as well as a bevy of incoming freshmen who will look to have the kind of impact that Ross and Lawrence had.

“He's a pretty good player as a freshman, and we got Trevor back again and Travis back,” Swinney said. “Man, I'm as motivated as I've ever been to get back to work with next year's team and kind of figure it out because it's going to be fun because we've got a lot of unbelievable seniors that are moving on, but we've got some dynamic pieces like Justyn Ross and that guy right here, that No. 16 coming back that are going to lead the way.”

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Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat. He also serves as a co-host of Solid Orange, seen at 11 p.m. Wednesdays on WACH FOX 57 in Columbia.


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