CLEMSON — Watching Sammy Watkins as a freshman, it seemed inconceivable that he could ever be less than brilliant. Yet last season he slipped in and out of the giant shadow cast by DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins.
Theirs was a relationship that aroused curiosity. Bound as teammates, set apart as richly talented rivals, they became deeply committed friends. As a sign of their devotion to one another, Hopkins said he intended to include Watkins in his wedding one day.
Yet after his season for the ages — first-team All-American, a rare achievement for a freshman, and Clemson records for receiving — Watkins last season played second fiddle to Hopkins. Admittedly, it was humbling.
Watkins said he had not managed celebrity well. In May 2012, he was charged by Clemson police with “simple possession” of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance during a traffic stop. The video of his admission went viral and embarrassed him, his family and Clemson. Coach Dabo Swinney ran Watkins through a gauntlet of penance, ending with a two-game suspension to start the season that could have been three had Watkins not shown sufficient contrition and humility.
By the time he joined the team on the field, it was clear Hopkins had displaced him as quarterback Tajh Boyd’s primary target. Two weeks later, he remained in Clemson with an intestinal malady as the team played at Boston College, and he watched Hopkins catch 11 passes for a school record 197 yards. Watkins would break it with 202 at Wake Forest in another two weeks, but this would be Hopkins’ breakout season.
When Watkins was knocked out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl with an ankle injury after the first play, offensive coordinator Chad Morris scrapped a game plan built around him. Hopkins teamed with Boyd to help Clemson pull off the biggest upset of the postseason.
Looking back, Watkins said he had a lot to learn about himself as a person and player. It wasn’t enough to understand Morris’ offense or to study opponents, two things in which he readily and routinely immersed himself. It was about maturity, about sound decisions, and about eating regularly, sleeping through the night and assuming a leadership role worthy of a first-team All-American.
Watkins never lacked confidence, but he has gained maturity. He spoke honestly and directly about his journey and where he hoped this season will take him and this team.
“I had a lot of things going on, just doing so much, just frustrated, not really accepting greatness,” he said, “just trying to hide from everything.”
It helped that in the spring his mother moved from southwest Florida to the Upstate. Watkins said he instantly added eight pounds eating her cooking, but inspiration and 7 percent body fat hides all sorts of imperfections.
“I catch myself working too hard sometimes, about to kill myself,” Watkins said, smiling. “I’m not nonchalant or laid back. I’m just working, trying to get the mentality to work hard every day.”
However, last year was a rude awakening, on and off the field.
“I just thought it was easy. A lot of teams played me differently. I don’t think I was prepared for them to do that,” he said. “It wasn’t on the coaches. I just didn’t prepare myself the way I should have, and I did not have the season I did my freshman year.”
His coach and teammates are circumspect.
“Before last season he was still a young guy. After last season, he’s officially a veteran,” quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “After all those experiences, it’s helped him find himself.”
Boyd knows that if Watkins produces at any level approaching his freshman season, Clemson’s offensive ceiling is limitless. Watkins has been moved to Hopkins’ spot on the field, the boundary or short side, where offensive coordinator Chad Morris thinks he might best benefit the offense, drawing double teams to set up other receivers or create more opportunities to run away from him.
Boyd’s decisions as he scans a defense must be quick and instinctive and it requires a special relationship between quarterback and receiver. Boyd and Hopkins had it, the result of a relationship born days after Boyd arrived on campus looking for someone to catch the ball. Hopkins was finishing his senior year at Daniel High.
“A lot of times, you want to know what type of route he’s running before you do any gesture or signals,” Boyd said. “If you’re not on the same page, things just don’t go well.
“When you perform with a guy like Nuk, who you’ve been with for a while, you can almost go out there and throw with your eyes closed.
“As talented as people can be on the field, if there’s not chemistry it doesn’t go well.”
Watkins said he was frustrated the first week of spring practice, Boyd as well. It’s progressively improved, they said.
“It’s going to take some hard, hard, hard work with Sammy and Tajh and those receivers to be on the same page,” Morris said.
Clemson holds its first practice on Friday. Morris and Swinney don’t intend to limit Watkins’ role as a multipurpose weapon, to eliminate the speed sweeps and occasional wildcat formation. But when it’s time to spread the field and get points in a hurry, Watkins won’t be hard to find. Think final drive of the season in the Georgia Dome.
“It’s not about speed, it’s about what you know,” Watkins said. “When me and Tajh get to clicking, I don’t think we can be stopped.
“We always had a connection, but it is different timing and different speeds. I’m going to get more opportunity at this position to make plays and beat the record I did my freshman year.”
As humbling as it was — last season and now “replacing” Hopkins, his friend — Wakins’ rededication has been noticeable.
“I feel good about what he’s done and the progress that he’s made,” Swinney said. “That’s what adversity will do for you. You either get stronger, you grow from it or you crumble. He has responded.
“He’s definitely focused on having a great year. Hopefully, he stays healthy. Because if he does, he will have a great year.”