CLEMSON, S.C. – When DeAndre Hopkins left Clemson in January for the NFL draft, the biggest question was how the Tigers would replace his All-American-level production in their offense.
There was an obvious but not quite automatic answer: the fourth true freshman ever to be named an Associated Press first-team All-American.
Sammy Watkins was obvious but not automatic, thanks to his 2012 sophomore slump.
Clemson’s junior receiver was one of college football’s most talented wideouts, a potent mix of athleticism, size and speed.
But could he put it all together for a bounceback season when his team needed it most?
One-third of the way through the 2013 campaign, the answer is yes.
Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Syracuse, Watkins looks far more like the player who took college football by storm in 2011 and little like the guy who struggled through last fall in a morass of illness, injuries and suspension.
He has 25 receptions for 355 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 88.8 yards receiving per game. And he feels just fine.
“I think I’m really just getting on a roll and starting to find myself back,” Watkins said. “Playing fast and having fun.”
On the surface, Watkins' numbers don’t pop off the page. He is averaging 8.3 receptions per game.
But he has surpassed 100 yards in two of three games and fallen just short of a third, making 10 catches for 96 yards at N.C. State. And while he had three receptions for 19 yards against South Carolina State, he played just 30 snaps and didn’t play after halftime.
Take away the S.C. State game, and Watkins averages 112 receiving yards per game this season, well above his 2011 average of 87.1 yards.
And he has recorded two of his three longest career receptions already this fall. His 77-yard catch-and-run score against Georgia was a career long, and last week’s 64-yard touchdown catch against Wake Forest was his third-longest. The only longer play? 2011’s 65-yard touchdown catch against Auburn in his third career game.
The 64-yard score against Wake showed just how dangerous Watkins can be if he is at the top of his game. On Clemson’s third offensive play, Boyd went deep down the right sideline for Watkins. A Demon Deacon corner shoved him out of bounds, drawing a pass interference call, but Watkins wasn’t fazed. He ran right back into the field of play, grabbed the ball over his right shoulder and sped the rest of the way for a score.
That was a scene Clemson coaches and fans didn’t see often last fall. As a freshman, Watkins had 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 receiving scores, adding a game-changing 89-yard kick return touchdown at Maryland.
He won three national freshman of the year honors, was a first-team All-ACC pick and the ACC’s Rookie of the Year. He was also named to four national freshman All-American teams and was a first-team All-American per the Associated Press, FoxSports.com, Rivals.com and Pro Football Weekly.
But while Watkins showed flashes of brilliance last fall, including a Clemson single-game record 202 receiving yards at Wake Forest, he never quite found a groove.
A May 2012 arrest for possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance (prescription pills which he didn’t have a prescription for) led to a season-opening two-game suspension. He also missed the Boston College game with a kidney ailment and dehydration and left the Chick-fil-A Bowl two plays into the game when he was flattened by LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, suffering a severely sprained ankle.
His 2012 showed significant regression: 57 receptions for 708 yards and three touchdowns, with 13 kick returns for 257 yards.
During the offseason, Watkins healed while maturing emotionally. His mother, Nicole McMiller, his stepfather, James McMiller (whom Watkins considers his father), and two sisters are living in the Clemson area this fall. They moved from Fort Myers, Fla., where the family’s former neighborhood was plagued by crime and drug abuse.
Watkins says having family close by helps him focus on what is important.
“The things I had happen last year, it affected me without my parents being there,” he said. “That’s who I look up to the most, who I go to for things. I really wanted them to move up—that helped me with having someone to talk to. I can go over to the house and talk to my mom and dad, go see my little sister, play with her. It’s special to me.”
A year ago, Watkins was the clear No. 2 option to Hopkins, who had 82 receptions for 1,405 yards and 18 scores. He was a first-round pick of the NFL’s Houston Texans and was just named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for September.
Now, Watkins is the clear top option in Clemson’s receiving corps. That status was only strengthened when junior receiver Charone Peake tore his ACL, ending his 2013 season after two games. Fellow junior Martavis Bryant had four receptions for 93 yards and two touchdowns at N.C. State but has struggled with inconsistency and drops. He is being pushed by true freshman Mike Williams, who made his first career touchdown catch against Wake Forest.
“I enjoy being a leader,” Watkins said. “I’m practicing hard every day, I’m being watched every day, and they feed off me, Tajh (Boyd) and the offensive line. If we come out there quiet or looking down, it’s a bad practice. I’ve got to be on my best behavior every day.”
By nature, Watkins is laconic and quiet. But he knows being a vocal leader is crucial with a young group of wideouts like Williams and fellow freshmen T.J. Green and Germone Hopper watching.
“I think it’s grown onto me now,” he said. “I’m more of a lead by example type guy, but those guys don’t win that much. You’ve got to start speaking when you get older. And a lot of guys look up to me. Now I’m not doing it for myself, I’m doing it for the team. When I speak up, I think it impacts a lot of guys on the team. I don’t say much but when I do they’re actually looking forward to it.”
Watkins has backed up his words with action, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris has no problem feeding him early and often.
Boyd targeted Watkins on the second offensive play against Georgia, the ninth against South Carolina State, the sixth at N.C. State and the third against Wake Forest.
“As we keep going I think I’m going to improve every game with working on the edge, being physical and blocking, and coaches do a great job getting me the ball early and quick,” he said.
To Watkins, however, those numbers don’t matter. One thing does: the 4-0 beside Clemson’s name.
“In these previous games I’ve been taken out in the second and third quarters,” he said. “I can’t focus on (stats). It’s really about winning.“
*Unless noted, all quotes in this article were obtained directly by the author.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.