There was a time when Clemson's receiving corps was questioned.
How would the Tigers survive without Justyn Ross? Who would bring the big-play potential? Could quarterback Trevor Lawrence's numbers suffer if multiple players don't emerge?
These were some of the loudest inquiries from March, when Ross was ruled out for the season with congenital fusion, through August's fall camp. Heading into the final regular-season game of 2020 on Saturday night against Virginia Tech, those questions have been answered, and they're resoundingly positive.
It was logical to wonder, though, what the Tigers would do at a position that it's made famous. There isn't a Mike Williams, DeAndre Hopkins or Sammy Watkins on this roster, at least not one who's that developed.
Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata could one day become that, but both have been slowed much of the season with injuries after starting camp late because of COVID-19 protocols. And then there's Ross, who was supposed to fit into the category of first-round NFL talents this season.
Also, don't forget that long-time receiver coach and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott departed last December for the head coaching job at USF, leaving Tyler Grisham to take over in his first season as an on-the-field coach.
None of that has mattered. Clemson has not suffered a letdown at the position.
"We don't necessarily have that big name that people were talking about all offseason all year that has all the expectations like Tee (Higgins), Justyn, other guys in the past," Lawrence said. "We've always kind of had that guy, but this year is a little bit different. Everyone's kind of playing their role and doing it well."
Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell have made up the difference this season, and the passing attack is statistically better than last year. Clemson's averaging 28.4 yards per catch as a team, that's running backs and tight ends included. Last year, the Tigers averaged 21.7 yards per reception.
Touchdowns per game and yards per game are both up as well. Sure, Lawrence is better in so many ways, but his guys aren't letting him down.
"I think it's been a little bit surprising to a lot of other people who's played and kind of made a name for themselves, but I think being a part of the program and seeing it every day it's not really surprising," Lawrence said. "It's been cool to be a part of that. It's definitely different than years past but still awesome."
Rodgers, a slot receiver who head coach Dabo Swinney said is a combination of Hunter Renfrow and Adam Humphries, has turned into one of the top receivers in the ACC. With his 813 yards, he's on pace to become Clemson's fourth 1,000-yard pass-catcher since 2015. He's got 58 catches in nine games and six touchdown receptions.
"He's an elite, elite player," Swinney said about Rodgers. "He'll be drafted fairly high and he's going to go have a great career. The game has really slowed for him. He sees everything. He finishes everything and as he's made a bunch of plays his confidence has gone higher, higher and higher. He and Cornell, they think they're going to catch everything."
Powell has come on especially strong in the last three games, posting back-to-back-to-back 100-yard games. He's just shy of 600 receiving yards and has four TDs. Powell has emerged as a true downfield threat.
"We knew he was going to have a good year because he had a really good camp, was just was playing really well," Lawrence said about Powell. "So we kind of expected it but people on the outside have really come to notice how he's playing."
Running back Travis Etienne (40 catches), tight end Braden Galloway (21 catches) and receivers Brannon Spector and E.J. Williams have added great value to the passing game.
These receivers, especially Powell and Rodgers, have made the routine catch look easy and the spectacular catch seem probable.
"Whatever the catch required is, our job as wideouts is to make it, period," Swinney said about his teaching philosophy.
It's worked out better than most people believed. Clemson's passing game is as legit as any in recent years, even though it lacks the household name. That means it could end up going down in Tiger history as an underrated group, but that would be a mistake.
The production proves their worth, and it's something that shouldn't be forgotten.