Sammy Watkins came onto the college football scene from Fort Myers, Florida, as one of the best receivers in the country, ranked as a 4-star prospect and No. 4 at his position by ESPN and as a 5-star prospect and No. 5 at his position by Scout.com.
In 2011, he took Clemson University by storm, amassing 1,219 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns while also rushing for 231 yards and scoring on a kickoff return. He showcased enough ability to be named an AP First Team All-American, joining Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson as the only freshman to accomplish such a feat.
But Watkins saw his production slip in 2012 due to a two-game suspension, injury and sickness, not to mention the emergence of DeAndre Hopkins, who, in his final season before declaring for the NFL Draft, amassed 1,405 receiving yards and 18 touchdown receptions. Watkins' numbers from 2011 slipped to 708 receiving yards and only three touchdown catches.
But now, with no Hopkins, Watkins is now the clear-cut No. 1 receiver in Clemson's offense, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris believes moving to Hopkins' old position will help get Watkins back to 2011 form. And now operating at full capacity this spring, he has the chance to go undisputed as the best receiver in college football.
What could push Watkins from top-10 status to No. 1 overall?
First, it all starts with what he has on offense to help support him. He has a fellow All-American quarterback in Tajh Boyd, who decided to forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior season, which keeps their chemistry intact, not to mention an offensive line returning four of its five starters from 2012. Boyd consistently targeted Watkins in 2011 and will be sure to give Watkins plenty of looks in the passing game.
What's more to this are Watkins' intangibles. He has the ability to work anywhere on the field, from the slot position to the outside position. He excels as a deep threat and can give a defense fits in the short and intermediate passing game. At 6'1", 210 pounds, he has the size you look for in a receiver and has such blazing speed it's hard for slower defensive backs to match up against him.
Watkins is a smooth route-runner and can open spaces in a defense and gain yards after the catch—a dangerous weapon for a receiver.
He is also as dynamic a returner on special teams, particularly as a kick returner.
But the biggest thing about Watkins is that there are no glaring weaknesses in his game. His ability continually forces teams to either double team him and roll their coverage towards Watkins or force themselves into a two-deep safety shell, at which point Watkins reverts to becoming a dangerous possession receiver. And Watkins the ability to turn a five-yard screen into a touchdown anytime he touches the ball.
The only time he's not dangerous is when he's on the sidelines.
Watkins is also unique in that he reminds many of a stronger version of former Florida Gators receiver Percy Harvin, who is now with the Seattle Seahawks after spending his first four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
Chad Morris uses Watkins in a similar fashion to how former Gators head coach Urban Meyer used Harvin: by utilizing him in the slot, on the outside, on reverses and sweeps, and even in the backfield. This is an invaluable asset in college football today, and it's something that could be coveted more in the NFL from teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks who run zone-read concepts and gave opposing NFL defenses fits.
Coming into his junior season, Watkins has the opportunity to make an even bigger impression than he did in 2011, and he is looking for a big rebound in 2013. If he gets back to playing like all of college football knows he can, he will be the best receiver in college football.