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Clemson redshirt senior wide receiver finally playing fast in race against clock

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Clemson Notre Dame Football (copy)

Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell (17) is in the middle of a breakout season. Matt Cashore/ACC photo

CLEMSON — Time. Cornell Powell knows he can't control it. So the Clemson wide receiver has made a friend of it. 

"You never know, especially with this year, when your last game is going to be," he said.  

It is a friendship of necessity. Powell has been waiting for his moment since 2016, two Tigers national championships ago. Back then he was a hot shot freshman, a former 4-star recruit from Greenville, N.C., with the world at his fingertips.

Slowly it slipped from his grasp, injury halting opportunity. And then there was the problem of speed. He needed to learn to play faster, his coaches insisted.

It feels fitting, then, that in his redshirt senior season Powell has finally figured it out, has learned to play at the necessary pace, at a point in which every next game is far from guaranteed. 

The coronavirus continues to ravage the nation, leaving in its wake cancellation after cancellation.

No. 4 Clemson, so far, has played all of its regular season games on schedule. And Powell, in a development few saw coming, has played a leading role in this race against the clock.

Powell's third on the team in receptions (31), receiving yards (418) and is tied for third in receiving touchdowns (three). 

"He hung in there," coach Dabo Swinney said. "He didn't run from the challenge."

He ran toward it, in fact. Even as star after star eclipsed him on the depth chart, Powell directed his focus toward progress.

There was a brief moment, in 2016, when Swinney was ready to give Powell a bigger role. Then he was sidelined by injury, and when he came back his spot had been passed on.

The list of receivers Powell has played alongside reads like an All-ACC ballot: Mike Williams. Ray-Ray McCloud. Deon Cain. Hunter Renfrow. Tee Higgins. Justyn Ross. Amari Rodgers.

And yet a flame inside Powell has continued to burn.

"I've always had the mindset that when I go out on the field, (I'm) the best player on the field," Powell said. "It's just showing this year."

Indeed, Powell has shone over Clemson's previous two games. In the team's 34-28 win over Boston College on Oct. 31, Powell had a career-high 11 receptions for 105 yards. The following week, as the Tigers narrowly fell to Notre Dame, 47-40, in overtime, Powell had six catches for a career-high 161 yards and a touchdown. 

He's attributed the shine to others, like any fifth-year player cognizant of his athletic mortality would. How about that offensive line, he's said. The running backs have set him up for success. And, wow, look at those two superstar quarterbacks. He's just playing his role, he insists.

Those teammates tell a different story. 

"You can see him getting some confidence," quarterback Trevor Lawrence said.

"He's been putting in that work for five years," Rodgers said.

"Nobody's more deserving of it," tight end Braden Galloway said.

During fall camp, two receivers stood above the pack for Swinney: Sophomore Joseph Ngata, who the veteran coach has likened to a future superstar, and Powell.

The man who didn't have any more time to burn was finally playing fast.

"He had a desperation to him in camp I had not seen," Swinney said.

The pandemic might have something to do with that. In early August, with the fate of the season uncertain, Powell and his Clemson teammates spearheaded the #WeWantToPlay movement. 

By the end of that month the NCAA had granted every fall athlete an extra year of eligibility.

So Powell could come back for the 2021 campaign — his sixth Clemson season — if he chooses. Or this will be it. He'll bow out whenever this season ends, pandemic permitting, and say goodbye to the place in which he learned how to wait.

"I'm really proud of him," Swinney said, and not only because the coach can point to Powell's story as an argument against transfer portal liberalism. 

Powell's journey speaks to something more fundamental, Swinney knows. Something more human. 

"You never know when the last time might be your last time," Powell said. "You just got to go out there and have fun.

"Fun is always (there) on Saturday for me."

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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