CLEMSON — Sammy Watkins knows Clemson fans might be wondering which guy is going to show up in the Tigers’ Top 5 showdown with Florida State on Saturday night in Death Valley.
In Clemson’s 35-30 win against Florida State in 2011, the wide receiver caught seven passes for 141 yards, which included touchdown receptions of 24 and 62 yards. But in last season’s 49-37 loss to the Seminoles, Watkins was held to 24 yards on six catches and no touchdowns against aggressive press coverage.
He’s ready to return to his prime-time form.
“I’m at the same place I was my freshman year, making plays and being that elite guy,” Watkins said.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior has rebounded from a difficult 2012 campaign, when a suspension following an offseason arrest as well as an abdominal virus caused him to miss several games. Through six games, Watkins has 36 catches for 582 yards and four touchdowns as senior quarterback Tajh Boyd’s primary target.
He’s again displaying the electrifying skills that produced a 91-yard touchdown catch against Syracuse, a 77-yard touchdown catch against Georgia and a 64-yard touchdown catch against Wake Forest. He said he must do the same sorts of things if the No. 3 Tigers (6-0) are going to defeat No. 5 FSU (5-0).
“I take pride in knowing that I’m going to have to step up and make plays and be the guy Tajh looks for on third-and-10 and second-and-15,” Watkins said. “I accept the challenge.”
Coach Dabo Swinney said Clemson can’t win “if your playmakers don’t make plays. Your best players have to play great to win games like this. That’s just the pressure that comes with it.”
A year ago, Clemson didn’t handle the pressure well. After going up 28-14 early in the third quarter on a 52-yard pass from Watkins to Andre Ellington, the Tigers fell apart and were outscored 35-9. Watkins never got untracked.
“I think he played about a half of one game and then we go down there (to Tallahassee), and he wasn’t quite into the speed of the game that night,” Swinney said. “They did a good job with him.”
Watkins said he has no doubt that FSU senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner will battle him every step, from the pass routes to the trash-talk on the way back to the huddle.
“Tajh has got to throw great balls, and I’ve got to fight for the ball,” Watkins said. “It’s not going to be a blown coverage. It’s man-to-man, so it’s really about beating your guy.”
Boyd said he doesn’t need to mention last season’s struggle against the Seminoles to his good friend.
“I know it still resonates with him,” Boyd said. “Sammy feels like he’s the best receiver in the country, and I feel like that as well. You’ve just got to go out there and perform and prove it.”
Boyd, who’s having a big season that has moved him near the top of several Heisman Trophy lists, feels a unique connection with Watkins, who caught 82 passes for 12 touchdowns as a freshman.
“Sammy is a mature guy,” Boyd said. “He does a lot of things outside of just playing that makes him great — the way he blocks, the way he leads, the way he talks to his guys. He comes back to me sometimes, we’ll talk about things on the field, and just our relationship has grown as well.”
Watkins has rediscovered a renewed comfort level on and off the field thanks to the move this year of his parents, Nicole and James McMiller, from Fort Myers, Fla., to the Clemson area. It has helped him feel like his old self.
“I’ve got lots of support just knowing they’re going to be at this game and knowing you’ve got your family to do everything,” Watkins said. “I can go home and sleep at my parents’ house. I can go home and get a good meal. I can see my mom, my dad and my little sisters. It’s a great thing to have.”