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 — Trevor Lawrence jogged onto the field at Death Valley in April, prepared to take his first-ever snap in a Clemson uniform for the Tigers' spring game, and 55,000 fans went wild for the phenom freshman quarterback. They wanted to see what he might do. They wanted to see if the hype was real.

But on the sidelines, moments before Lawrence took his place on national television, at least a couple of Clemson coaches had their focus on another rising star, too.

While the crowd went bananas for Lawrence, their eyes turned to someone else, as well.

"Make a play," a couple of them told Tee Higgins as he trotted out to the field for Lawrence's debut. '"Make a play this series."'

A matter of seconds later, Higgins was in the end zone, having just snagged a perfectly-thrown 50-yard pass from Lawrence's right arm on a go-route. Higgins caught the touchdown in leaping-fashion over cornerback Mark Fields, who was left diving on the ground after the sophomore wide receiver out-sprinted him.

The crowd went bonkers for Lawrence.

Fans celebrated his arm.

But it was also in that moment when they realized that another, unrelated question crucial to Clemson's success as a football team in 2018 was in the midst of getting its answer.

In 2016, it was Mike Williams who was Clemson's marquee athletic receiver as the go-to deep ball threat. In 2017, it was Deon Cain. Who it might be in 2018 was still a question heading into the offseason. Now, all signs say it will be Higgins.

He finished that spring game with four catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. The same number of touchdowns Higgins had in all of 2017 as a freshman matched the number he had in one intrasquad scrimmage as a sophomore.

His time is now coming.

"Tee Higgins had an unbelievable day. I asked him if he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express ... I didn't know what was going on," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said immediately after the spring game. "He said, 'Nah, I'm just trying to be your starting 9-man.' I said that's a good answer and a good way to do it."

Higgins, a native of Tennessee who is 6-4, 200 pounds, entered the end of the spring practice period wanting to make adding muscle to his frame this summer a top priority. Williams was an inch shorter than Higgins at 6-3, but weighed 25 pounds more at 225. Cain, who was listed at 190 pounds while at Clemson, was 10 pounds lighter than Higgins was at the end of spring, but carried it on a frame that was a full three inches shorter than Higgins'.

Higgins' target goal this summer was to add 10 pounds, putting him at 210, to give him a better chance against physical cornerbacks in the ACC and also to help him with his blocking duties. In the spring, he worked on his releases, becoming a more consistent blocker and winning more of the 50-50 battles. Matching up in practice every day with sophomore cornerback A.J. Terrell has helped him with the battles in the boundary.

"Tee has taken another step. He's a guy that has a lot of talent. I think as the season went last year, the physical nature that the season takes on you as a freshman caught up with him," said Jeff Scott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. "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."

The spring certainly showed that. In all likelihood, the fall will do the same.

Clemson's Top 10 Most Important Football Players

10. K Greg Huegel

9. CB Trayvon Mullen

8. S/LB Isaiah Simmons

7. DT Christian Wilkins

6. DT Dexter Lawrence

5. WR Hunter Renfrow

4. RB Travis Etienne 

3. WR Tee Higgins

2. Coming Saturday

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

Grace is the Post and Courier's Clemson reporter. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism.