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Purple Prospect Portfolio: Cornell Powell

Powell didn’t see the field until his senior year, but showcased NFL ready skill.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Cornell Powell had one of the more interesting collegiate careers among the prospects available in this year’s draft class.

There was extreme discrepancy among recruiting sites on his rating. Powell was rated a three-star recruit by ESPN, and the No. 81 receiving prospect in the 2016 class. 247 Sports gave Powell four-stars and named him the No. 156 overall prospect in his class. Rivals touted him as the No. 36 overall prospect in the class. He had offers from schools like Duke, East Carolina and Wake Forest, where he likely would’ve seen immediate playing time. Instead, he chose Clemson.

Powell didn’t see much playing time as a freshman, but wasn’t redshirted. He finished with 12 receptions across nine games, including a five catch performance against Georgia Tech. Those five catches would be the most he had in a game for four years. Over Powell’s first four seasons he accumulated only 40 receptions for 329 yards and three touchdowns across 42 games. During that time, Powell fell behind the likes of Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney cited inconsistency as the reason why Powell failed to find playing time. Swinney had this to say ahead of the 2020 season, “That’s always been his problem. Day in and day out. Don’t get out-competed. That’s really it. He’s been out-competed. 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.”

In 2018, Powell had five catches for 63 yards across the first four games, but an academic issue sidelined him for a few weeks. Swinney and the coaching staff ended up redshirting Powell. A transfer for the talented receiver would’ve made sense, but he chose the path less traveled. Entering 2020, his redshirt senior season, Powell spoke with the media and had affirming comments about his time at Clemson, “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.” When asked if he considered transferring, he immediately dismissed the notion, “Nothing easy is worth having. I feel like I wanted to earn everything I had. I could’ve easily went somewhere else coming out of high school and I just felt like Clemson was the best place for me to develop both on and off the field.”

In the “transfer portal” age, Powell fully devoted himself to the Clemson program. Ahead of his fifth and final season, he stated that he learned every receiver position, “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.”

After a slow start, Powell’s dedication paid off. He went on a historic tear in his fifth and final season, including back-to-back-to-back 100-yard games, tying the Clemson record for such a feat. The North Carolina native capped off his college career in the Sugar Bowl against Ohio St., the first round of the College Football Playoffs, with a massive 139-yard, two touchdown performance. Over the final eight games of his career, Powell hauled in 45 passes (39 in the final six games) for 825 yards and seven touchdown receptions. Powell earned a Senior Bowl invitation, and skyrocketed up mock drafts after a masterful two month conclusion to his career, when he wasn’t on anyone’s radar ahead of the 2020 season.

Powell had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, showing off his plucky 10-inch hands, sudden route running and separation ability to all three levels of the field.

Games watched: 2020 only — Norte Dame, Pittsburgh, Ohio St., Wake Forest, Boston College.

Pass game:

Playing almost exclusively on the boundary, Powell flies off the line of scrimmage with a varied release package, creating throwing windows seamlessly. He has an awesome ability to throttle down and stop on a dime against zone looks. Dude has 10-inch ball magnets attached to his arms. Sticky hands. Plucks the ball with ease in contested catch situations and rarely drops the ball (two drops on 78 targets in 2020.) He is physical at the stem, pushing off and creating late separation often.

The 23-year old isn’t a true burner, but consistently threatens vertically with urgent acceleration off the line and can make subtle cuts at full speed. Imposes stacks and boxes out vertically. Was a four-star basketball player and knows how to box out on deep balls when stacking. He has fantastic body control, always willing to fully lay out over the middle of the field or on the sideline. Fearless over the middle of the field, he runs digs, crossers and slants with confidence.

Powell is physical after the catch, frequently attempting to find a seam and run through it like a bowling ball. Broke tackle after tackle against Notre Dame. Has returned throughout his career and is dangerous on screens, sifting through traffic and plowing through contact.

He ran a wide variety of routes to all levels of the field and is fluid on in-breaking routes, as well as breaking to the boundary. NFL ready route runner, which he continued to display in Mobile. Put Shaun Wade in a blender against Ohio St. Uses his hands in rhythm with his feet to swat jams and separate against press. Defenders that beat him stayed in phase the entire play and broke passes up.

If the throw is accurate, he’s making a play on it, and going to catch it if the defender doesn’t force an incompletion. Came up big in big moments, with clutch performances against Notre Dame, Ohio St. and Boston College. His performance in the Sugar Bowl was heroic, doing everything he could to keep Clemson in the game.

Run game:

Blocks his tail off. Weighed in at the Senior Bowl at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds and blocks like it. Aggressive, but stays square. Vice grip mitts that lock defenders up and don’t let go. Wants to impose his will. His effort is high level even when he’s away from the play. Special teams contributor. Willing to block, tackle and has some return skills. Can be relied on as a key blocker on screens.

Summary:

Powell checks the boxes.

Variety of releases? Check.

Consistent hands? Check.

Contested catch ability? Check.

Attacks blind spots? Check.

Versatile route runner? Check.

Physical route runner? Check.

Dangerous after the catch? Check.

Works at all three levels? Check.

Wins against man? Check.

Understands zone? Check.

The only concerns are vertical speed against NFL corners and his late breakout. There are logical reasons as to why Powell took so long to break out, such as the prolific talent that was in front of him. However, Dabo Swinney’s comments about consistency are slightly concerning and hold me back from giving him a first round grade. Nonetheless, his will, dedication and commitment to Clemson speak volumes about his confidence in himself. When you look at his combination of physicality and separation ability, it’s hard to think he won’t make plays. He might not ever be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but he should come in and provide quality snaps in 2021.

One sentence: “Powell is a polished receiver that can win in a variety of ways and is ready to step on an NFL field today.”

Grade: 2nd round.