CLEMSON—Most football players see their roles on the team gradually increase the further along they progress in their careers—not decrease.
But that is exactly what has happened to the former No. 2 wide receiver in the nation Ray-Ray McCloud.
McCloud entered the Clemson program in 2015 with the makings of being the Tigers’ next great wide receiver, and showed flashes of greatness through the season—amassing 29 receptions for 251 yards and a touchdown, combined with seven kickoff returns for 223 yards and a 31.9 average per return.
Even though McCloud would see his numbers increase last season—his role on the Tigers team has faded as the season wore on, as he had only 28 receptions for 217 yards over the final 11 games of the season, after amassing 19 receptions for 247 yards and two touchdowns in the Tigers three of their first four games.
However, McCloud is not focused on the diminished role that occurred last season—he is focused on making his junior campaign the best one yet.
“I come out here every day with the mentality that I am one of the best (receivers) in the country,” McCloud said. “If you don’t feel like you are the best and you are not confident—then you are not going to perform well.
“Every day in the weight room and every day in practice, I kind of push it to the limit. I’m becoming a better leader and I am taking care of my body more. I’m being more professional than anything and I’m making it more of a business for me. I’m grinding every day.”
It is that renewed work ethic and drive that has caught the attention of the Tigers coaching staff, with the Tigers’ head coach Dabo Swinney saying that the light has finally come on for McCloud.
“I’m probably most pleased with Ray-Ray offensively,” Swinney said. “It’s like the light’s kind of come on for him a little bit, as far as his work ethic, his practice habits. He’s grinding out there, and I love that. Love, love, love what I’m seeing out of Ray-Ray.”
That sentiment was echoed by wide receiver’s coach and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott who said that McCloud has, “…been one of the most consistent players on the offense.”
While his consistency on offense, as well as the coaches trust, has been on the uptick through the offseason, there is one area where McCloud will still have to work to earn the trust of the coaching staff—punt returns.
McCloud has shown the ability to be a dynamic weapon in the return game, with 182 career punt return yards and 126 kickoff return yards, but last season a series of bad plays left the coaching staff with no other choice but to pull McCloud from those duties.
After leading the country in punt return yardage, McCloud became the symbol of what not to do. The Tigers’ return man broke free against the Troy Trojans for what appeared to be a touchdown, but instant replay showed that McCloud dropped the ball prior to crossing the goal line—a 75-yard return for a touchdown quickly turned into a 74-yard return and a turnover.
His struggles continued into the season, as he fumbled a team-high six times before being replaced by sure-handed Artavis Scott.
But with the departure of Scott to the NFL, Swinney is once again willing to give McCloud a shot at being the weapon in the return game that he showed he could be—if he is willing to be serious.
“Ray-Ray just has to be serious about it,” Swinney said. “He’s (McCloud) is going to have that opportunity. He should be one of the best in the country, but he has to catch the ball.
“Hopefully, the maturity I have seen in Ray-Ray—he is ready to kind of go and take the next step, but he has to go do it.”
While having to prove himself as a trustworthy option in the return game, McCloud has never lost the confidence that had him leading the nation in return yardage last year.
“I’ve always had confidence,” McCloud said. “Everything happens for a reason. I just go out there and play.”