By Eric Boynton
It took 11 games into his freshman season before the secret known by Clemson coaches and teammates was finally made public, that all the soaring reviews prior to his arrival weren’t simply hyperbole.
Heralded 18-year-old receiver Tee Higgins blew up social media and television highlights with a pair of outrageous circus catches for touchdowns, each unique in their style points, during last month’s blowout win over The Citadel. Finally Higgins had translated his high level of play seen daily in practice to when it really mattered the most.
In the aftermath, Higgins heard from his high school receivers coach, who told him, “It’s about time you did something.”
With a talented and far-ranging receivers group that features everything from NFL-ready Deon Cain to ultimate overachiever Hunter Renfrow, Clemson had no burning need for Higgins to contribute immediately. But he is a nice commodity to have at the ready.
“Tee has definitely emerged as a big-play threat,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “He has that rare combination of great size, length, and catch-radius to go along with really great speed and quick feet.”
Higgins arrived on campus as the highest-rated signee of the new recruiting class, a five-star Tennessee product, who caught two passes in the season-opener but then just one for 8 yards the next four games combined. Fortunately the teen possesses a humble nature that can be rare for a heavily lauded recruit, especially at a position known for accelerating excessive egos.
“I never really was too big on the five stars, never really believed in all the hype,” Higgins said. “Any guy going from high school to college, you have to come in and work. You can’t come in thinking you are the guy.”
It wasn’t until the Nov. 18 win over The Citadel that the world got a glimpse of what earned such rave reviews when he caught six passes for 178 yards.
Of course, The Citadel was overmatched physically, but it was the look of Higgins’ pair of touchdown grabs that opened eyes. He corralled a 32-yarder in the end zone, keeping his concentration after the ball ricocheted off two defenders. He later made a one-handed snag of a 78-yard throw down the sideline, maintaining his balance before sprinting away from the defender.
“A lot of my friends and family said they were so glad I had the game they knew I could have,” Higgins said. “Just playing my game and they said it looked like I was having fun.”
The fun continued in the following week’s win over South Carolina when he caught three passes for a game-high 84 yards. His first two receptions — for 24 and 40 yards — converted third-downs in the second quarter to keep alive Clemson’s second and third touchdown drives in going up 20-0.
He went without a catch in the ACC Championship against Miami, but was targeted multiple times, and it’s clear he’s now become an important cog in Clemson’s weekly plans.
“Just a matter of time,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Higgins’ development. “The biggest thing I say with him was just getting his sea legs. Sometimes it just takes a little while to get comfortable to where the game slows down enough to where you can play fast, play fluid, and play with confidence and that’s where he is right now. I’ve absolutely seen it coming all year long.”
Swinney added, “He has an unbelievable attitude, great work ethic, he’s an excellent teammate and is a kid who loves to be coached. He likes to learn and his confidence is really high right now. He’s really come on for us.”
Scott acknowledged there’d been some frustration among the staff seeing Higgins perform so well in practice, making crazy catches and putting in solid work, and then not quite being able to translate it all into game day.
“We’ve tried in earlier games this year to get him some opportunities and they didn’t match up just right,” Scott said. “I think his confidence has continued to grow and he’s going to be a special player who will continue to make plays for us down the stretch.”