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Choosing football over basketball, Clemson's Tee Higgins looking to take next step

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Sugar Bowl Football

Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) is set to see his role increase now that Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud have departed Clemson's football program. He is shown above in Clemson's College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Alabama. File/AP Photo/Butch Dill

CLEMSON — Ask him about basketball, and it becomes obvious. There is a part of Tee Higgins that misses it.

Watching March Madness brings up all sorts of nostalgia for the Clemson wide receiver. Not spending as much time on the hardwood, like he did on a regular basis in high school, is different.

He had basketball scholarship offers from Louisville, Tennessee and Auburn, meaning he could be coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance with the Volunteers or SEC Tigers. Or he could be meeting new Louisville coach Chris Mack, who was just hired to take over the Cardinals this week.

Instead, Higgins is participating in spring football practice. He is catching balls from four different quarterbacks, he is working on his releases, he is looking to get stronger and he is determined to improve from his freshman season.

And that is just the way he likes it.

Adamant that he only wanted to play football in college, Higgins admits he did at least talk with Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell. Nothing serious came of it, he said, once it became clear he would be suiting up for the Tigers’ football team.

Now the Tennessee native is looking to validate that decision a step further. With starters Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud departing early for the NFL Draft, Higgins’ opportunity to earn a starting role is here. He intends to do everything he can to seize it.

“Everybody’s competing. You’ve got to come out and work,” he said. “Spring is that time where coaches evaluate you, and so it feels pretty good to just come out here and compete with other guys around me.”

Higgins, who is 6-4, has the long athletic frame that helped Mike Williams and Cain become marquee receivers at Clemson. When it comes to 50-50 balls and having to out-jump opponents, Higgins’ basketball background has certainly helped him with the vertical aspect of football.

But unlike Williams, who weighed 225 pounds when he left Clemson, Higgins still doesn't have the bulk that he wants. Similar to Cain, Higgins weighs around 200 pounds now. The difference is Higgins is three inches taller than Cain and one inch taller than Williams. He wants to get up to 210 pounds.

“Tee has taken another step,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “I think he’s really worked on his body, he looks better, he’s out there running, he’s healthier and he’s made some good plays. It’s a process.

“Mike Williams was a several-year process, improving and improving until you finally turn that corner and be a dominant player. I think (Tee) and Diondre (Overton) have the potential to make that move and are on the path right now. That’s why every day in spring ball is critical.”

What Scott wants to see from Higgins this spring is improvement in his blocking game, which will only become more complete once Higgins adds more weight. The two have been working on Higgins’ technique and Scott has challenged him to prove he can be a complete wide receiver, not just one who makes the flashy downfield plays.

With so much depth at wide receiver, Higgins has to earn his playing time against a talented cast of wideouts, and both of Cain and McCloud’s immediate backups on the depth chart return in Overton and Trevion Thompson.

“I was excited for (Cain and McCloud to leave) just because they wanted to go to the next level. Just excited for them,’ Higgins said. “And I guess (excited for myself because) it’ll just give me the opportunity to go out and play more.”

Brent Venables not happy 

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney warned the media Wednesday night that his defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, might be in a foul mood after the Tigers' second team scrimmage of the season. Venables has gone on record earlier this spring airing his grievances about the lack of depth he has with his defensive backs, and it appears Wednesday did not make him feel any better about that part of his collective unit. 

"I think they're still running," Swinney said, pointing to the group still on the field while the rest of the Clemson players finished up. "You might want to skip (Venables) today. It'll be a short interview." 

Swinney was right. 

Venables was noticeably irked. According to the defensive coordinator, a defensive back lined up offsides in the first play of the scrimmage, then the Tigers' defense jumped offsides again immediately after. After that, there was a play the Tigers' defense stopped in the middle of, even when the ball was still live. It led to a touchdown from the offense. 

"The receiver didn’t’ stop. The quarterback didn’t stop," Venables said. "So just stuff like that. I don’t think we played with maturity and you need to. It just takes one guy here and there.

Venables was most upset with the lack of discipline, lack of leadership and the lack of effort he perceived from his unit two days after returning from spring break. 

"Mentality, knowledge, intelligence — whatever (word) you want to use, use whatever you want," he told the press. "There were some good plays and I’m always the Debbie Downer and I’m always Mr. Negative. I call it like I see it. If they earn it, they make a competitive play, then that’s great. More power to them."

Quarterbacks impress 

All four of Clemson's quarterbacks threw at least one touchdown pass during the scrimmage, but it was incumbent Kelly Bryant who appeared to stand out the most with four passes for scores. Two of them came in a goal-line drill and another was a 65-yarder to Amari Rodgers on the third play of the scrimmage, according to the university's release. The Clemson offense ran eight plays of at least 20 yards or more and every quarterback — Bryant, Hunter Johnson, Chase Brice and Trevor Lawrence — each had a touchdown pass of at least 20 yards. 

When it came to wide receivers, it was Cornell Powell that stood out the most to coaches, along with Higgins. Powell had a team-high 81 yards with a touchdown and Higgins had two touchdowns himself. Running back Tavien Feaster had three and fellow running back Travis Etienne led all runners with 81 yards and a score. 

Spence gaining confidence 

Rising redshirt senior kicker Alex Spence, who was charged with taking over the starting kicking duties after Greg Huegel tore his ACL last year, was three-for-three Wednesday in field goals. Coaches have been continually impressed with his confidence following a season that saw him have his documented struggles. 

Injury update 

Early enrollee wide receiver Derion Kendrick was held out of the scrimmage with a hamstring injury. Johnson, who tweaked his hand last week, was healthy Wednesday. The Tigers are hoping to cut loose early enrollee tight end Braden Galloway (foot) at full speed next week. 

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

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