CLEMSON, S.C.—When the 2013 season began, one of Clemson’s biggest questions was this: how would the Tigers complement star wide receiver Sammy Watkins in their hurry-up, no-huddle offense?
When DeAndre Hopkins declared for the NFL draft following the 2012 season, he left behind a boatload of program receiving records and also a gaping hole in Clemson’s wide receiver corps.
Last fall, Hopkins caught 82 passes for a Clemson-record 1,405 yards and an ACC-record 18 touchdowns. He was a first-round pick of the Houston Texans and is currently starting alongside Andre Johnson.
Following a disappointing sophomore season marked by injuries and suspension, Watkins has picked up Hopkins’ slack. He has piled up 71 receptions for 1,086 yards and nine touchdowns through 10 games for the No. 7 Tigers (9-1, 7-1 ACC).
However, Clemson has struggled to find a consistent No. 2 option alongside Watkins.
Following Thursday’s 55-31 whipping of Georgia Tech, that problem might be over.
Junior Martavis Bryant had the best game of his collegiate career, catching five passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. It was his first career 100-yard game and a natural step in his season-long progression from inconsistent player to consistent deep threat.
Bryant had six receptions for 73 yards and two touchdowns against N.C. State on Sept. 19, but was benched for the first half of the Wake Forest game the following week for making a throat-slashing gesture following one of his touchdowns.
He has reached the end zone only once since, but saw consistent improvement over the last three weeks. He had three catches for 46 yards against Florida State, four for 88 against Maryland and five for 72 at Virginia.
Thursday was just the next step. While Bryant’s 34 receptions tie him for second with Adam Humphries on Clemson’s roster, he has 698 yards and four touchdowns. Humphries has 413 yards and two touchdowns.
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Clemson sports information
“He has been practicing hard and listening to the coaches,” Watkins said. “I have been in his ear every week telling him he’s an NFL-caliber receiver and that he’s a freak athlete. It’s good to see him coming into a groove with Tajh (Boyd). He understands that he’s a big part of the offense now.”
Bryant’s emergence has been a long time coming. He was a four-star prospect when he signed with Clemson in February 2011.
But while Watkins emerged immediately as the national freshman of the year and a first-team Associated Press All-American (one of only four true freshmen ever to accomplish that feat), Bryant’s development has been slower.
He had nine receptions for 221 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, and 10 receptions for 305 yards and four touchdowns last fall. But he was suspended for Clemson’s Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU for academic reasons, and coach Dabo Swinney said Bryant needed to mature.
This fall, that’s exactly what has happened.
Bryant stands 6-foot-5 and runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, making him a potential coverage nightmare for any cornerback.
While his 76-yard catch-and-run score down the right sideline Thursday night was a highlight, his most impressive play didn’t result in a score. With Clemson holding a 13-0 lead in the second quarter, the offense faced third and 18 at its own 49. Tech cornerback Jemea Thomas was draped on Bryant, but he made a beautiful diving catch for 47 yards, setting up a short Mike Williams touchdown reception.
“It felt good for my work to finally pay off,” Bryant said. “As I keep playing the game I keep getting better.”
He and Boyd are developing a solid connection as well. Early on Thursday, Bryant drew a pass interference call when a Tech cornerback tugged on his jersey from behind. When he got to the sidelines, Boyd said Bryant told him “I promise you, you won’t overthrow me. I’ll run under anything.”
That set up the 76-yard touchdown reception a quarter later.
“I always tell (Boyd) that if he just throws it up, I’ll get it,” Bryant said. “He’s not going to overthrow me, and not many people can.”
Watkins is a prime candidate to declare for the NFL draft: he is projected as a first-round pick should he give up his final season of eligibility. And if Bryant continues his emergence, he could certainly follow Watkins to the professional ranks.
For now, however, Clemson will gladly enjoy his production over the final two weeks against The Citadel and South Carolina and in its bowl game. His 20.5-yard per catch average leads the team, and Bryant’s presence takes major pressure off the equally explosive Watkins.
Now, it seems, the only question left for the Tigers’ offense is what Bryant does next.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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