Freshman WR Cain steps in as deep threat for No. 1 Clemson

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott wasn't quite sure what was next after the Tigers' main long-ball threat, wide receiver Mike Williams, suffered a season-ending neck injury in their opener.

Enter freshman Deon Cain.

The five-star recruit out of Tampa, Florida, has picked up his game after a slow start. The top-ranked Tigers (13-0) probably wouldn't be headed to the College Football Playoff without his contributions.

''Midway through the year, you could really see the light come on for him,'' Scott said. ''The confidence that he had, and he's been a very critical piece to our offense with several big plays.''

The 6-foot-2 high school quarterback recruited as a receiver was largely a late-game option early in the season. He had just six catches for 70 and no touchdowns in Clemson's first four games.

But Cain has caught fire - and passes -since with 28 catches for 512 yards and five TDs. More importantly, he's stretched the field for the Tigers' offense and given Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson a sure-handed target who can get separation from defenders.

Cain had six of Clemson's 16 longest pass receptions during the regular season.

''Whenever the ball is in the air you really have to fight and go get it,'' Cain said.

Clemson, No. 1 in the CFP rankings, will need Cain to continue to produce in the Orange Bowl against Big 12 champion Oklahoma (11-1, CFP No. 4) in their national semifinal matchup.

Cain in the latest stellar wide receiver Clemson has had in recent years. DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant - all NFL standouts - played together at Clemson in 2011 and 2012.

Williams, a 1,000-yard pass catcher last season, was in line to be the next Tiger to ascend to the pros after this year before his early season injury.

While Cain had the talent to fill the void, he acknowledged he didn't have the technique at first needed to succeed at the college game.

''I just had to get comfortable with the game, with the speed in college,'' Cain said. ''Once I got comfortable, it was just all gas, no breaks after that.''

Cain first showed off his big-play ability with a 67-yard pass catch, Clemson's longest reception of the season, against Boston College. He just missing scoring on the play, stumbling near the goal line as he secured the catch.

His first career score came two weeks later against North Carolina State, a 40-yard TD grab. It began a streak of five straight games with a touchdown catch, a run he ended with his 55-yard reception in a 37-32 win over South Carolina on Nov. 28.

Watson said Cain's experience as a prep quarterback has helped him make the transition to receiver.

''It's been good,'' Watson said. ''He's been doing a great job for this team and making some big plays.''

Cain said fifth-year senior Charone Peake and Williams helped him learn and develop quickly.

''I knew I had to start learning how to play and get right in my head right away,'' Cain said.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney joked last month how Cain was among several players who stopped by his house, saw his 1992 Alabama national title ring and wondered, ''You only got one of these?''

Cain, a grin creasing his face, said he was both joking with his coach and showing him what his focus is on during his time at Clemson - winning as many titles as possible.

''My goal and our future team that I know will be here, we're capable of getting more,'' Cain said.

Four of Clemson's top five receivers will return in 2016. Swinney said Williams decided to return next year, too, instead of leaving for the NFL.

But first things first - and that's Oklahoma on New Year's Eve.

''We just have to stick to the plan,'' Cain said, ''and keep doing what we do.''