CLEMSON — DeAndre Hopkins does not want to speak to reporters, so his hands do the talking.
Baptized in an ice tub after practice on Aug. 30 in the presence of his teammates and coaches, Hopkins subsequently declined requests for interviews because he prefers not to discuss his reasons. There might not have been a ripple had his position coach, Jeff Scott, not posted a photo on Twitter that received national attention after Hopkins set a school record with 13 catches in the win against Auburn two days later.
Now, with eyes on No. 10 Clemson’s game tonight at No. 4 Florida State, Hopkins’ hands need to make a statement against the nation’s top pass defense.
Through three games, the young man they call “Nuke” has been quarterback Tajh Boyd’s principal target. The two-game suspension of All-American receiver Sammy Watkins created an opportunity, and Hopkins seized it.
“I think he took it personally,” center Dalton Freeman said, “when everybody thought we were going to absolutely collapse without Sammy out there.”
When Watkins returned last week, Hopkins still led the team with seven catches for 95 yards. He is on pace for more than 100 receptions and an All-America season of his own. ESPN recently added him to its Heisman Watch.
“People know he’s a great player. One of the things that makes this team great is the people, and Nuke is as good as it gets,” Boyd said. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever been around.
“And, as you’ve seen, he’s grown in his faith, spiritually. I was very proud of him when he was baptized.”
Guard Tyler Shatley was moved by the experience.
“Getting baptized in front of the whole team shows that he’s committed to his team and to his faith,” Shatley said. “It’s sincere. It’s about family to him.”
Hopkins grew up in the neighborhood and parts of his story verge on legend. His nickname comes from a childhood predilection for Nuk pacifiers. An uncle, Terry Smith, was fourth in career receptions at Clemson with 162, a number Hopkins should pass shortly.
At Daniel High, nine minutes north of campus, Hopkins intercepted a state-record 28 passes and was a top prospect as a defensive back and receiver. During Daniel’s run to a state basketball championship his senior year, Hopkins tried to shut out reporters because he felt the attention unfair to his teammates.
One scouting service rated him the No. 12 receiver in the nation, another No. 14 at corner. ESPN listed him as the 29th best athlete. Basketball scholarship offers from South Carolina, Florida and Wake Forest intrigued him.
When he chose football at Clemson, there was never any doubt where Hopkins would fit. Few players catch a ball as effortlessly, so it was unlikely he would play defense, though he did spend part of a season on the Clemson basketball team. During football practice early his freshman year, Hopkins made a catch that still excites Freeman in the retelling.
“He was running a post, and the pass was behind him,”Freeman said . “He just reached back with one hand, caught the ball, tucked it and kept running.
Freeman said he remembered asking himself a question many were asking.
“Why isn’t he starting or playing more?”
After what seemed an unnecessarily long audition, Hopkins started the fourth game, and five months after graduating from Daniel, caught six passes. He finished as Clemson’s leading receiver in 2010 with freshman records in each category.
Sharing the load with Watkins last season, he caught 72 passes, including 10 in the bowl game days after sustaining a concussion in a car accident. It was the fourth most productive season in Clemson history, surpassed by Aaron Kelly (2007), Rod Gardner (1999) and Watkins.
Hopkins would seem to be the ideal complement to Watkins, steady and dependable with no visible hint of ego, the leader by example. Florida State shows a tendency to man coverage, which would seem to play to Clemson’s strength, and Boyd said he wouldn’t hesitate to throw to either if that’s what the Seminoles intend.
Also blessed with gifted hands, Watkins is the faster, but Hopkins has “game speed.” Both excel in traffic, and both play bigger, going high for a pass and beating defenders to the ball.
“I’ve never seen anyone catch it the way he (Hopkins) has,” Boyd said “Just watching him playing around, right hand or left hand, it sticks to him.
“I’ve never been around a guy like that.”