Editor’s note: This story kicks off a series that, for various reasons, is a “prove it” season for certain Clemson players. Next week, we’ll take a look each day at a Tiger who faces a make or break year.
What makes Cornell Powell’s career at Clemson a curious one?
Is it that a four-star recruit has never had more than 15 catches in a single season?
Is it that he’s watched numerous players come through the program and move on to the NFL, yet he’s heading into his fifth season?
Is it that he’s been around so long that he's learned all three receiver positions, not necessarily because the staff needed to cross-train him?
Is it that despite multiple reasons to transfer, he’s ready to make one last push at a starting job and productivity?
After all, in the era of the NCAA transfer portal, who would’ve blamed Powell if he had taken off for a better opportunity?
Powell, though, hasn’t been looking for the easiest path, even if he is still searching for productivity and his place at WRU.
“Nothing easy is worth having,” Powell said in March. “I feel like I wanted to earn everything I have. I just feel like Clemson was the best place for me to develop on and off the field.”
Coming out Greenville, N.C., in 2016 as the fourth-best player in a talent-rich state, Powell probably envisioned his career going much like the great talents DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant and Sammy Watkins before him.
But when he got on campus, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow had already established themselves as prime targets. Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud became more reliable options. Then came Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.
“Everybody has to wait their turn,” Powell said. “Coach (Dabo) Swinney always tells us (Clemson all-time sack leader) Vic Beasley didn’t start until his last season.”
While not every prized recruit at Clemson has turned into an NFL star, time is running out on Powell. So far, he has accumulated 40 career receptions for 329 yards and three touchdowns in 42 games played.
“I can’t complain with two national championships,” Powell said when asked about his first four years at Clemson. “I have a lot of individual goals that I still have that I want to achieve.”
He’s flashed talent and ability, though, which makes his lack of production perplexing at times. It’s been the consistency, according to Swinney that’s truly held him back.
“That’s always been his problem. Day in and day out. Don’t get out-competed. That’s really it,” Swinney said. “He’s been out-competed.”
He’s endured being stuck behind talented receivers on the depth chart, both as an underclassman and upperclassmen. Powell got off to a solid start in 2018 with five catches for 63 yards in the first four games of the season, but an academic issue sidelined him for a few weeks.
By the time it was worked out, Swinney and the coaching staff decided to redshirt Powell.
“He’s always been talented, but when you’re going against the best of the best, you have to bring it every single day,” Swinney said. “He’s had some moments, but just playing with a high level of intensity and a high motor every day and making every play a game rep, that’s how you take it to the next step. Some days great, some plays great, and then he kind of takes some off and sometimes he doesn’t even know he’s doing it.”
On the bright side, Powell gets one last opportunity to reach his potential, and it’s not something he’s taking lightly this year. Did you know the receiver coaches raved about the most in terms of standing out and leading the team in receptions this spring was Powell?
“Coming into this year, I put my No. 1 goal just to be able to run all three positions, whether an injury happens or if I’m able to start at that position, I just want to get on the field and be able to contribute to my team,” Powell said.
This is his “prove it” season, and he knows that. However, he's still stuck behind others on the depth chart. Ross, Joseph Ngata and Amari Rodgers are the likeliest three starters heading into the fall. Meanwhile, youngsters Frank Ladson, Brannon Spector and E.J. Williams are eager to prove themselves.
Powell still has dreams of playing at the next level, and he believes that the versatility of playing different positions will help him get there.
So will continuing with the mentality he had in spring practice.
“I feel like all my four years has equaled up to this last year,” Powell said. “I just feel like this is my time and I’m ready to embrace it.”