CLEMSON, S.C. – Two years ago, Sammy Watkins took college football by storm.
From his very first touch as a college football player, Watkins served notice that he’d be a force, racing 33 yards for a touchdown 26 seconds into Clemson’s 2011 season opener against Troy.
It was only the beginning. Watkins authored a special season: 82 receptions, 1,219 yards, 12 receiving touchdowns, as well as 33 kick returns for 826 yards, including a game-changing 89-yard kick return score at Maryland.
The awards rolled in: he was the national freshman of the year according to The Sporting News, Rivals.com and the Columbus (Ohio) Touchdown Club. He was a first-team All-ACC selection and the ACC’s Rookie of the Year. CBSSports.com, the Football Writers Association of America, CollegeFootballNews.com, Phil Steele, Rivals.com and The Sporting News named him to their freshman All-America teams.
He was a first-team All-American according to SI.com, FoxSports.com, Rivals.com, Pro Football Weekly and the Associated Press; he was just the fourth true freshman in NCAA history to be named a first-team AP All-American.
The others? Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson—elite company.
Last fall was a different story entirely. For a variety of reasons, Watkins never found the groove that made him such a threat as a freshman.
In early May 2012, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and prescription pills for which he didn’t hold a prescription. Although the arrest was cleared by pretrial intervention, Watkins was suspended for the first two games by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
Although he threw a 52-yard touchdown pass at Florida State, health issues left him a minimal factor in a 49-37 defeat; he caught six passes, but for only 24 yards. Watkins didn’t make the following week’s trip to Boston College because of dehydration caused by a kidney ailment; he said recently that the ailment’s effects plagued him throughout the season.
Two plays into the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, his season ended when he was trucked by an unblocked Barkevious Mingo, suffering a severely sprained ankle.
His sophomore numbers were down significantly: 57 receptions for 708 yards and three touchdowns, with 13 kick returns for 257 yards.
“Last year I don’t think I did bad. I just don’t think I met my expectations for the coaches,” he said earlier this month.“ I didn’t get as many balls.”
As Watkins prepares for a crucial junior season, all indications point to a rebound towards his fabulous freshman year. Watkins, coaches and teammates all say he is in excellent shape both mentally and physically. With DeAndre Hopkins gone to the NFL as a first-round pick of the Houston Texans, Watkins now is the leader of a talented Clemson receiver corps and the No.1 target of reigning ACC Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd. He has game-breaking speed, acceleration and athletic ability.
“I’ve grown. My team took me back in with being a leader,” Watkins said. “Last year I didn’t have that leader mindset. Now I do. I just come every day to work hard and show my team that I’m putting my best foot forward to keep working.”
That starts Saturday night when No. 8 Clemson takes on No. 5 Georgia in the biggest game of college football’s opening weekend.
“I really think everything happened for a reason. I can’t control that,” he said. “This year’s definitely going to be a different year, with my focus, my coaches, my team and how they push me. And how I’m approaching this fall.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.