CLEMSON — Part of the struggle for college athletes is having an understanding that, when you step foot onto the campus of whatever school you decide to attend, chances are you are no longer the best player on the field.
That has been the case for Clemson tight end Milan Richard.
Richard entered Clemson in 2014 as the No. 2-ranked tight end in the country by ESPN. But after redshirting his freshman year, Richard found himself relegated primarily to special team’s duty and only a handful of offensive snaps.
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The reason was that he was sitting behind a two-time Mackey Award finalist and the most decorated athlete to play the position at Clemson — Jordan Leggett.
With Leggett headed to the NFL, the door is finally open for Richard to have an impact of his own on the Tiger record books, which is what the nephew of former University of Georgia star Herschel Walker has waited for.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s something that I’ve, definitely, been waiting for. So I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity,” Richard said. “I’m really just trying to become a complete tight end that the coach can trust in all facets of the game. I’m not trying to do anything different, just preparing hard and understanding the role and trying to fill the role.”
With the losses of not only Leggett but running back Wayne Gallman, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, center Jay Guillermo and quarterback Deshaun Watson from last season’s record-setting offensive squad, one might think that offense will have a hard time getting going with so many new pieces.
But for Richard, while it is different not having those faces on the practice field, he does not see it that way. In fact, he believes that the offense is simply in “plug and play mode” — just plug in a new guy and go play.
“It’s different, but I feel like we haven’t missed a beat,” Richard said. “I mean, you plugged in Kelly (Bryant). You plugged in Deon (Cain), you plugged in guys and you plugged in me. So it’s not like the offense disappeared because those guys left. Guys just stepped up in line and took off running with it. That’s what’s happened now, were in our spots, throwing the ball around and having a good time.”
However, even though Richard is relishing his opportunity to finally show the coaches what he can do with extended playing time, he also understands that he will still have to earn everything that he gets.
With a bevy of talent at the position — including redshirt freshman J.C. Chalk, junior Garrett Williams, fellow redshirt junior Cannon Smith, redshirt senior D.J. Greenlee and redshirt sophomore (former three-star wide receiver who changed positions last season) Shadell Bell — Richard understands that he is going to have to work harder than ever to take over the role vacated by Leggett.
“We are all great friends, and we all push each other and I think that is what makes the competition so good,” Richard said. ““Nothing has really changed. I mean I’ve been with the same guys for the last three or four years at least … They are all competing for the job and that’s all that you can ask.”
Richard understands that along with striving to be the best option to start at the tight end spot, the Tigers will also be looking to fill the void in leadership that Leggett provided over the Tigers’ last two historic seasons — which may be even bigger than who earns the starting job.
“I’m hoping to take over that role, but that is something that has to play out … We have a long time to develop leadership throughout the team — I want to be (a leader),” Richard said. “They decide if they want to follow you or not, so that will be up to them if they look up to me as one of those guys.”