Junior Wide Receiver Deon Cain is returning to Clemson as the primary pass catcher in the Tigers offense in 2017. It’s a role that he has not been accustomed to since stepping foot on campus. The Tampa native has fulfilled his role as a deep ball threat so far in his career having averaged 18.1 yards per reception.
In 2016, he was second on the team in touchdowns with nine and according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) he was fifth in the nation on touchdowns of 20 plus yards or more with eight.
He is able to win deep because of his speed. He can beat top notch college corners during the release regularly with stutter releases then take off. His straight line speed is apparent but what impressed me the most when I turned on the film was his ability to track the ball while in the air. This is a skill that a lot of deep ball receivers struggle with because they have to change the pace of their route, get their body in position to make the catch all while not tipping the defender.
He possesses the ability to beat defenders when they are in off coverage because he closes the cushion so quickly. He is such a long strider. On this play, he lulls the defender to sleep then takes his stem wide for the touchdown. But not before showing off his ability to track the ball to aid an inaccurate throw.
The 6’1″ 210 pound receiver doesn’t have the most muscular frame but he doesn’t have to. He displays an ability to hand fight in all phases of the route stem, which helps him separate when defensive backs want to disrupt him. He doesn’t exhibit the ability to body a defender or win against physical corners at the catch point but his hand usage is solid.
But if Cain wants to improve his draft stock he is going to have to show scouts that he can run a full route tree and have the mentality to work all quadrants of the field. According to Krossover, Cain was most effective on the left side of the field and mostly along the perimeter. In fact, he was only targeted 11 times over the middle, none of which occurred within 10 yards.
His most effective route over the middle was the dig. It’s a perfect route for a player with his skillset. He has the speed to pull away from man coverage as he makes his break to the middle or enough range to gain enough depth to sneak behind the linebackers, elevate and catch it away from his frame. A QB friendly combination.
In all of the 2016 season, the Tigers’ offense had eight different players catch the ball in the middle of the field from 0-10 yards. Why wasn’t Cain one of those guys? The quarterbacks completed 62% of the passes over the middle in that quadrant, so why not to Cain? Was it because he had issues hanging onto the ball? He registered a 13.6% drop rate (PFF) which was six dropped passes on 44 catchable balls.
Or was it due to his inexperience at route running seeing as how he played quarterback in high school so is still learning the nuances of the position? There weren’t many crisp, clean routes run by Cain, just a lot of speed cuts. No routes that required precision or multiple breaks. No change of pace during route stems, he is a long strider that operates at one speed.
Throwing over the middle for the quarterback is an exercise in trust. Quarterbacks are counting on receivers to be in a certain spot at a certain time and are expecting receivers to come down with it. Now that Cain is the lead dog following the departure of WR Mike Williams, can he play like a number one?
Cain has many skills that translate to the NFL, but Cain must expand his repetoire this season if he wants to be known more than just a deep threat.