CLEMSON, S.C. — For Dabo Swinney, there was no doubt. No arguing. No pleading.
Clemson’s head coach can be very cautious when advising his players on NFL draft decisions. In Swinney’s eyes, unless a player is projected in the first round, they should return for their senior season.
When Sammy Watkins came into his office in early January, there was no such discussion. Swinney said several times during the season that the junior receiver was “a top-10 draft pick,” and he didn’t change his tune when it was time to talk about his future.
“Sammy is a guy that has to go,” Swinney said in January. “Obviously Sammy, somebody’s going to take him in the top 10 or it’s crazy. He is a special, special, one-in-a-million kind of guy.”
Watkins’ decision to forgo his senior season for the NFL was a slam-dunk, obvious choice. He is projected as a top-10 selection in May’s NFL draft and will display his skills for league scouts and executives this week at the NFL Scouting Combine.
His departure leaves a major question for Clemson, however: How do you replace him?
Suggesting one player can replace Watkins is preposterous. In just three seasons, Watkins set Clemson career records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. In 2013, he bounced back from a lackluster sophomore season for 101 receptions, 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He finished second in ACC history in career receptions and third in receiving yardage.
How do you replace that? With a cadre of capable candidates.
Let’s take a look at the main candidates to step into Watkins’ old role.
It’s easy to forget that Peake was signed alongside Watkins and Martavis Bryant in Clemson’s Class of 2011. Peake was rated as a 4-star recruit and the nation's No. 5 receiver prospect by 247Sports coming out of Spartanburg’s Dorman High School.
He had a disappointing start to his college career, piling up 29 receptions for 243 yards and two scores in his first two seasons.
But the 6’3”, 200-pound Peake earned a starting role in 2013 and delivered early on, catching eight passes for 84 yards and a touchdown over the first two games. Those stats were second across the board to Watkins on the Tigers’ roster.
However, Peake’s season ended abruptly in mid-September when he tore his ACL during practice. He received a redshirt and will be a junior again this fall.
He is big, athletic and fast and can fill Watkins’ role if asked, though expecting Watkins’ level of production would be far-fetched.
He is not expected to be full-go in spring practice, but should be healthy by August.
“Charone will be ready to roll,” Swinney said. “He’s going to be chomping at the bit to get back out there.”
The 6’5”, 205-pound South Carolina native had a very impressive debut in 2013. Williams had 20 receptions for 316 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 15.8 yards per reception (second on Clemson’s roster behind Bryant).
He has excellent hands, speed and leaping ability and could emerge as the next great Clemson receiver this fall.
“I think Mike Williams is going to be a very special player,” Swinney said.
The only question is where he’ll ultimately fit. With Bryant also gone, expect Williams to see serious consideration for the starting role he left behind.
Opposing defenses will see plenty of Williams this fall. It’s just a matter of how he is deployed.
|Clemson's returning receiver production in 2014|
|Player||Class||2013 receptions||2013 yardage||2013 touchdowns|
|Clemson sports information|
At 5’10”, 175 pounds, Scott is somewhat smaller than Watkins, who measures 6’1”, 205 pounds. But his skills are quite similar to Watkins’. He has excellent speed and has the ability to turn a short bubble-screen pass into a 80-yard touchdown with a single juke at the line of scrimmage.
He also returns kicks and had multiple kick return touchdowns while at East Lake (Fla.) High School. He was used in a variety of roles as an East Lake senior, making 67 rushes for 723 yards and 13 touchdowns as well as 37 receptions for 542 yards and five touchdowns.
He was rated by 247Sports as a 4-star receiver and the nation’s No. 8 receiver prospect. He is already enrolled at Clemson and will go through spring practice with the Tigers, giving himself an early opportunity to learn Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense and make a positive impression.
While Scott might not start from day one, he should make an immediate impact at the collegiate level.
No single player can replace Watkins’ production and impact. But Clemson has the wide receiver depth to keep a high-flying air attack humming, no matter who winds up as the 2014 starting quarterback.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace