CLEMSON -- While Clemson's lack of a down-field receiving threat has been well-documented this season, also absent is a short-range option: a quality slot receiver.
Only three wide receivers have double-digit reception totals for the Tigers entering Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl. While the Clemson offense has missed a dominant downfield presence like Rod Gardner or Jacoby Ford, the Tigers have also missed reliable short-range targets like Tyler Grisham and Chansi Stuckey.
Slot receivers are sometimes thought of as sub-package players who are not talented enough to start at flanker or split end. But to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney a slot receiver is valuable and requires a special skill set -- a skill set missing at Clemson this season.
"You've got to be able to play basketball on grass when you play in that slot," Swinney said. "You have to be able to have quick lateral movement. … I think the biggest thing is having no fear. You have to be able to play quick in space and have no fear."
Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier said more than ever he values players with high football IQs,
a critical tool for receivers who are required to find soft spots in coverage.
"A guy's football IQ is critical," Napier said. "His understanding of the big picture is critical. How that allows him to anticipate things and understand leverage, there's no doubt that is extremely important (in the slot). That's why Tyler Grisham is going to be a pro for a long time."
Perhaps missing short-to-intermediate receptions -- slot receiver Marquan Jones had just 20 catches for 146 yards -- is the reason the Tigers have a commitment from Dorman's Adam Humphries, a modest prospect thought to best fit as an inside receiver.
Napier believes there is a short-term answer on the current roster: Brandon Ford, who has been converted from receiver to tight end.
"Brandon Ford is a guy, in my opinion, who is getting to be more and more like Michael Palmer," Napier said. "He has a big body, good range, he has short area quickness to get separation and he has great ball skills. I think he is going to emerge kind of like Mike. I think he is similar."
If any Division I coach figures not to undervalue an undersized, Wes Welker-style slot receiver in an age of small forward-sized receivers, it's Swinney who walked on as a receiver at Alabama. Swinney notes while Clemson has struggled in the passing game, the Tigers have successfully recruited and developed slot players during his tenure as receivers coach.
"We've had a couple guys here," Swinney said. "(Chansi) Stuckey, he wasn't even a wide out, and that's how he's made his living -- a slot guy. He was a very good player here, undervalued as a seventh-round pick. It's his fourth or fifth year and he's very productive. Smart, tough and has football skills.
"(Tyler) Grisham, I don't know if we could have gotten any more out of him. The (Pittsburgh Steelers) love him and they are grooming him to be, in their words, a (Wes) Welker-type-guy."
It's something Swinney desires to have again, his own Wes Welker-type-guy.
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).