Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott have been effusive in their praise during spring practice, describing Ray-Ray McCloud as more mature, more consistent and more focused.
As a junior, McCloud understands that his time to be an every-down, impact receiver is now. Does he feel more mature now that he is one of the more veteran players returning on offense?
He pauses for a moment before he answers yes. Then he quips, "I’ve still got no facial hair, but I feel great."
McCloud feels great for a reason -- well, a few reasons. He looks around at the receivers and realizes they are the most veteran skill group returning on offense, despite losing Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. With Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain and McCloud all back, Clemson has three receivers with a combined 227 receptions, 3,016 yards and 28 touchdowns in two seasons.
With that in mind, McCloud has worked hard to become a better leader this spring -- not just for the receivers but for the entire offense. This is especially important because Clemson will have a new starting quarterback in the fall.
"Me, Deon, Renfrow, we’ve all played since we were freshmen and played in big-time games," McCloud said. "That’s another reason why leadership skills have to come about in every single one of us.
"Every team needs a great leader, and you’re only as good as your leaders. Last year, we had some wonderful leaders. I would hate to see us lose a game because of leadership or the way we practice or not pushing each other -- something like that. Everybody should push each other, and that’s how you grow as a team."
As Swinney and Jeff Scott have emphasized, they do not want their players to come in and be the next anyone. McCloud does not need to be the next Artavis Scott any more than Cain needs to be the next Williams. What they have seen is a different competitiveness from Cain and McCloud, players raising their games now that the spotlight is on them.
“I’ve just seen a lot of maturity from him,” Jeff Scott said of McCloud. “He’s a guy we really need to step up, losing a guy like Artavis Scott, who was so productive for us. Ray-Ray has kind of been that guy we’ve been grooming to take over that position, and he’s definitely on track to do that throughout the spring.”
McCloud has worked harder in the weight room too, an area he admits was not his favorite when he arrived as a freshman. Now that he is in his third year in the system, he realizes its importance and calls it his second home.
So far this offseason, McCloud has increased the strength in his legs. That has allowed him to run faster, have more stamina, run better routes and push off defenders more easily throughout practices.
Then there is special teams, on which McCloud made his name last season for the wrong reasons. Against Troy, he fumbled a punt before he crossed the goal line because he started celebrating too early, a gaffe he is still trying to outrun.
When asked whether he has extra motivation as a returner this season, McCloud simply says yes. Swinney believes McCloud can be the best returner in the country if he is fully focused and committed. So does McCloud.
“Honestly, I know I can be the best in the country,” he says. “The best play I’ve got is to stay focused, and that’s my game plan this year -- to stay focused. I know if I stay focused, I can be the best in the country at it, and we’ll see where we go from there.”
ESPN reporter Heather Dinich contributed to this report.