Clemson junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins is one of the nation's most explosive players.
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.
Clemson junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins is an excellent physical specimen.
Weight: 205 pounds
Position: Wide Receiver
Awards/Watch Lists for 2013: Maxwell Award (Player of the Year), Biletnikoff Award (Most Outstanding Receiver) and Walter Camp Award (Most Outstanding Player).
Clemson junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins is capable of scoring on any play.
Sammy Watkins has supreme athletic ability, flypaper hands and excellent acceleration and speed.
He has the ability to swing a game’s momentum on one amazing play.
Two years ago at Maryland, Clemson was in serious trouble against a Terrapins team that, quite frankly, wasn’t very good. The Tigers had spotted the Terps a 35-17 third-quarter lead before rallying to take a three-point lead with 11:26 remaining in the game.
Maryland hit right back, taking a 45-42 lead on C.J. Brown’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Matt Furstenburg with 7:26 left. Clemson was on the ropes—but not for long. Watkins took the ensuing kickoff at his own 11 and accelerated down the left sidelines for an 89-yard touchdown. Clemson went on to a 56-45 win, and Watkins set a Clemson single-game record with 345 all-purpose yards.
That’s the kind of player Watkins is: he can change a game at any moment. Let Watkins take three steps after making a catch, and chances are, you aren’t going to catch him.
Even when he isn’t at his best, he’s still dangerous: last fall, a kidney ailment that cropped up three weeks into the season lingered throughout the year. But he still managed to roll up a Clemson single-game record 202 receiving yards on eight catches at Wake Forest, and catch 11 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown against North Carolina State.
Watkins will be eligible for the NFL draft following this season, and is regarded by CBSSports.com and SBNation, among others, as a first-round pick should he declare. He is healthy, focused and certainly not lacking for motivation.
Sammy Watkins can struggle sometimes against press coverage, an issue for him to address this fall.
Playing against press coverage is where Watkins needs to improve.
Watkins has good size at 6’1”, 205 pounds, but he sometimes struggles when going against physical cornerbacks who press him and deny him the ability to leap and haul in Tajh Boyd’s passes.
Florida State used that exact strategy against him in Tallahassee last fall, with Seminole cornerbacks and safeties consistently harassing him and making life difficult. Watkins wasn’t feeling his best—he’d miss the Boston College game the following week with dehydration connected to a kidney ailment—but the strategy was effective.
And while FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is now the head coach at Kentucky, you’d better believe the Seminoles’ defensive backs and coaches have filed that game plan away for good use Oct. 19 when the teams meet at Memorial Stadium.
One of Sammy Watkins' biggest 2013 games will come against his home-state Seminoles.
1. Vs. Georgia, Aug. 31
With an ABC prime-time national audience, ESPN College GameDay and 82,000 fans looking on, Watkins should be primed for a big show. He’ll be facing a Georgia secondary that returns only one starter from 2012, cornerback Damian Swann.
It’s an excellent opportunity for highlight-reel plays and a strong start to 2013.
2. Vs. Florida State Oct. 19
Watkins is a Fort Myers, Fla., native, and this game matters to him. As mentioned, he struggled against the Seminoles last fall, with press coverage limiting him to 24 yards on six catches. With this crucial ACC Atlantic Division showdown taking place in Death Valley, you’d better believe Sammy will be motivated for success against a home-state rival.
3. At South Carolina Nov. 30
Watkins has yet to score his first career touchdown against the in-state archrival Gamecocks. Two years ago, he dropped a sure long touchdown pass three snaps into the game and finished the day with just four receptions for 39 yards.
Last year, Watkins caught four passes for 37 yards in another Clemson loss. Clemson has never lost five consecutive games to the Gamecocks, and depending on how the season unfolds, a BCS bowl berth or a berth in the BCS National Championship Game could be on the line at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Tajh Boyd and Clemson’s offense will need more than four catches and 39 yards from Watkins against South Carolina this November.
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins suffered through a down sophomore season in 2012 and is poised for a rebound this fall.
I don’t think he ever got in a rhythm. And there was nothing he could do to get into that rhythm. He knew there were going to be some suspensions involved, no one could predict he was going to get sick-it was frustrating for him, no doubt about it.
It was frustrating for us, as hard as we would try, we’d think, "OK, now he’s ready. OK, he had a decent game, we’re seeing him now." Then it never happened. The way he’s taken care of his body, really gotten himself into some tip-top shape. He’ll be the first to tell you right now he’s in as good a shape as he’s been in in his life.
—Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, on the difference between Watkins’ in 2012 and 2013.
There were times when he was performing really well, but times when he wasn’t playing up to his capability, up to his standards, and it was hard for him to get in a groove. He didn’t play the first two games and we were up big against Furman—he missed (parts) of four, five games. When you’re not in every game, you can get lost sometimes. He performed well, but I expect a totally different mindset from him this season.
—Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, on Watkins’ transformation.
There’s no comparison in Sammy right now from last year to this year. He’s a lot more explosive, a lot more lean. He’s far more determined, very focused. He’s had as good a camp as anyone we’ve ever had.
—Chad Morris, on Watkins’ overall preseason performance.
A healthy, focused Sammy Watkins is poised for a big season for Clemson in 2013.
Watkins seems like a far more focused, prepared player than the guy who was readying to serve a two-game suspension at this time last fall. This time a year ago, Watkins was working with the scout team while others, like DeAndre Hopkins, prepared for the season opener against Auburn. He wasn’t mentally ready to return.
That’s changed this fall.
Watkins is the clear leader of a talented receiver corps who'll be focused on winning a national title and enhancing his 2014 NFL draft position.
My prediction: Watkins will record 85 receptions, 1,400 yards, 14 touchdowns in his final season of college football.