Mark Clark: Phenix City freak playing freakishly well for Clemson

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If his early play for the Clemson University Tigers is any indication, he may just live up to the standards he has set for himself this season – his freshman season at the school. Ross has set his sites to earn All-ACC and All-American honors as a Freshman. And, at this point, count his coach Dabo Swinney as a believer.

Phenix City’s Justyn Ross, an all-state wide receiver at Central High, has had an incredible start to his Freshman season for the Tiger. He has played in three games so far and has found the end zone three times. He has six catches for 172 yards, a 28.7 yards per catch average and one of those catches was for one yard. If you take away that one catch, his average per catch soars to over 34 yards. Ross has two touchdown catches of over 50 yards, something that has not been done by a Freshman since Sammy Watkins played for the Tigers. Those catches were for 57 and 53 yards. The first one came during his best outing of the season, three catches for 103 yards against Georgia Southern. The second one came last weekend in Clemson’s 49-21 victory over Georgia Tech. That 53-yarder was his only catch of the day – no wasted effort for Ross. His three touchdowns in four games is the first since Scott did it in 2015. He is the first freshman to catch three touchdowns in his first four games since Sammy Watkins in 2011 when he had touchdowns in his first four games.

With his two 50-yard plus touchdown catches, Ross became the first Freshman to accomplish the feat since Artavis Scott against South Carolina and Oklahoma in 2014. His three touchdowns in his first four games as a Freshman

Teammate Tee Higgins was asked in a preseason interview about Ross. He described the 6-4, 210-pound receiver as a “freak.”

“The guy is a freak. I thought he was going to need a lot more improvement than he did. It’s just the little things like release, his stance, everything that all of us need. It’s just the little things,” Higgins said.

Higgins should know as well as anyone how hard it is to find playing minutes as a freshman on the Clemson football team. He finished last season with 17 catches for 345 yards with two touchdowns in his first season as a Tiger and believes Ross is further ahead than he was at this point of the year.

“He’s quick off the ball. You just don’t see that in an incoming Freshman. Like me, I wasn’t quick off the ball. I had to learn and get used to the game. That man, he’s just very quick. You can see it. And he can go up and get the ball,” Higgins said.

Higgins and the other Tigers might have thought Ross’ one-handed catch against R.E. Lee last season in the playoffs was a rarity. It was not. In fact, it was the second one-handed catch the high school senior had made against the same team. During the regular season, Ross caught another ball with one hand while a defender held his other hand. Both catches resulted in touchdowns for the Red Devils. The second one – the one in the payoffs – was highlighted on Monday Night Football. The whole nation saw the talent his high school coach, Jamey DuBose, thought was “routine.”

“We’ve seen him make more spectacular catches in practice. He’s made so many that we hardly notice that it’s special anymore,” DuBose said after last year’s victory over R.E. Lee in the playoffs.

During an August scrimmage, Ross showed off his leaping and catching talents for the Tigers. He made a leaping one-handed catch that went viral when it was posted on the Clemson Twitter account. That catch was just a glimpse of his talent – the talent that made Swinney and his coaches cheer like kids when Ross made his announcement on National Signing Day that he would sign with the school. Swinney and his coaches danced around as if they had just been named National Champions without playing a game.

“That’s what he did in high school,” Swinney said of the preseason scrimmage catch. “He made plays like that all the time. That’s just a gift. He’s incredibly blessed when it comes to his ball skills.”

Ross left Phenix City for Clemson with confidence, not cockiness. He has been that way since he first stepped on the field for Central as a Freshman. He has reason to exhibit such confidence. I have always said I knew he would be a star when he made the catch for a touchdown against Opelika as a sophomore. He caught the ball and was hit by two Opelika defenders at nearly the same second. While the two Opelika defenders lay prone on the turf of Trawick Field at Garrett-Harrison Stadium that night, Ross ran on to the end zone to score.

Ross’ final catch at Central his senior season was for his final touchdown as a Red Devil and came in overtime against McGill-Toolen. Ross did not give up on his route on the play; he merely adjusted and stepped to the front of the end zone to haul in the throw from Peter Parrish, who has made a verbal commitment to LSU for next season. Unfortunately, the extra-point kick was blocked and the Red Devils lost 28-27. Ross’ career was over. Well, over at the high school level.

Now, he is a receiver for Clemson – a true go to receiver as a Freshman. Swinney has no problem sending the ball Ross’ way. Now that he has tied a couple of marks set by Watkins, Ross has even more confidence – deservedly so. Will he be the next big time receiver developed in the Clemson program? If early play is an indication, yes he will be – and it will come faster than expected.

Mark Clark is a local sports writer for 

The Citizen of East Alabama.