CLEMSON — In the moments after former Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft, South Dade High School coach Nathaniel Hudson sent a text to one his favorite pupils:
"You got next."
Frank Ladson Jr. didn't take long to respond: "I already know."
The opportunity for Ladson, a sophomore wide receiver for the Tigers, got even bigger when junior Justyn Ross (congenital spine fusion) was ruled out for the season.
If there is a 2020 campaign, Ladson is likely to step into a more prominent role. Those who watched him transform from a quiet high school kid to a 4-star recruit believe the sophomore is ready to take the leap.
"Now is his time to shine," South Dade offensive coordinator Herman Reaves said. "I think it's his coming out year."
Last season, then, was his introduction year. In a wide receivers room that also included junior Amari Rodgers and Diondre Overton (who is now out of eligibility), Ladson was cast as a bit player.
He recorded nine catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns. He was often grouped with Joseph Ngata, who finished with 17 catches for 240 yards and three touchdowns as a fellow freshman.
With junior Amari Rodgers likely to be the starting slot receiver in 2020, Powell, Ngata and senior Cornell Powell will be in competition to fill the spots left by Higgins and Ross in an offense helmed by quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne.
If the 6-3, 195-pound Ladson's number is called, Hudson and Reaves are confident he'll produce. Hudson said Ladson was like a "cheat code" at South Dade. He recalled a practice Ladson's junior year when receivers were going one-on-one with defensive backs. Both Ladson and his defender left their feet on a high pass, with Ladson snatching the ball with one hand.
Former Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott was at practice that day. Hudson and Scott shared a look.
"You guys are getting a good one," Hudson said.
By his senior year, Ngata was wearing Clemson T-shirts every Friday. But there was still work to be done at South Dade. Reaves often drove him to and from school, and together they'd sit in Reaves' car and envision what Ladson would do on the gridiron that weekend.
"Our favorite thing was zebra pass. That's like, he made a living off of it. Zebra pass, made a living off of it," Reaves said. "We'd always envision how it was going to work. And 10-for-10 it always worked. We knew, Frank on the big post, it was touchdown. So every time we envisioned it, it ended up just happening."
Clemson fans certainly hope such a scenario can play out this season. Before spring practice was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, coach Dabo Swinney was encouraged by Ladson.
"He looks like a different guy," Swinney said. "I love what I've seen out of him."
In high school, whenever Ladson got a pass, the South Dade announcer belowed his nickname over the speaker: "Frank 'take him deep' Ladson!" The Miami product worked just as hard in practice, Reaves said, when the stands were empty.
That could prove to be an asset in 2020. If a college football season is held, some believe it would be safest to hold games without fans. Some players feed off rowdy student sections. Ladson?
"Frank don't need no crowd around," Reaves said. "For him, it's that competition."