CLEMSON — If Sammy Watkins is playing his final few games with No. 9 Clemson, he’s determined to finish with a flourish.
Watkins’ stellar run began last week with a record-setting 14-catch, 163-yard showing in a 40-27 win at Maryland.
“It’s great when the offense is clicking and you can go out there and make a lot of plays,” Watkins said.
The 6-foot-1 junior bettered the mark of 13 receptions set in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl by former teammate DeAndre Hopkins. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he believes Watkins’ speed and technique will lead him to follow Hopkins as an NFL first-rounder next spring.
Watkins displays those skills whenever he lines up, and leads the ACC with 813 receiving yards.
The Tigers (7-1, 5-1 ACC) close out their league road schedule at Virginia (2-6, 0-4) on Saturday.
Watkins has been making big plays all season. His first touchdown was a 77-yarder against then No. 5 Georgia when he grabbed the ball in traffic and burst through two defenders and outraced them to the end zone.
The receiver was one of the few on offense to shine in a 51-14 drubbing against Florida State. He had eight catches for 68 yards and his 3-yard TD catch in the second quarter cut the Seminoles lead to 17-7 and put the blowout on pause for moment.
Watkins showed his fire on the play, too, fighting through thick coverage to get open just inside the goal line. He came up pumping his fist and encouraging teammates after the catch.
It’s those qualities that have made Watkins a top-10 staple in NFL mock drafts. Swinney counsels players who’ll be first-round picks to leave early, and he certainly expects Watkins to make that call.
“He’s a top-10 pick to me,” Swinney said. “I’d be surprised if he came back, but who knows? I didn’t think C.J. Spiller was coming back.”
Spiller stunned his family, Swinney and Clemson fans when he returned for his senior season five years ago. Spiller went on to be the 2009 ACC player of the year and was picked ninth the next April by the Buffalo Bills.
Watkins said he hasn’t thought that far ahead, choosing to concentrate on the rest of Clemson’s season.
“All I can do is keep playing hard and keep giving the scouts what they’re looking for and everything will work out on my end,” he said.
Watkins was a freshman sensation soon after arriving on campus.
He had 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns to become an All-American in 2011 and looked ready to break even bigger the following season. But a drug arrest in May 2012 led to a two-game suspension to start the season. He was sick and missed a trip to Boston College, then lasted one play against LSU in the bowl game before getting hurt.
Watkins’ production dropped as quarterback Tajh Boyd focused more on the sure-handed Hopkins, who set an ACC mark last fall with 18 touchdown catches.
When Hopkins left for the pros, Watkins understood he’d have to work harder to regain his edge and Boyd’s trust.
He worked in the weight room and looks a more chiseled 205 pounds. He and Boyd worked together during the offseason to rebuild a connection that was more dormant than dead.
Boyd said working with Watkins gave him a chance to “understand his mentality and his approach to the game.”
“He goes out there and tries to perform at a high level all the time,” Boyd said. “He’s been doing that a lot lately.”
Virginia coach Mike London said Clemson’s offense measures up well with No. 2 Oregon, who beat the Cavaliers 59-10 earlier this season.
Watkins is closing in on a pair of school marks: He needs 36 receptions to break Aaron Kelley’s Clemson record of 232 catches and 281 yards receiving to surpass his pal Hopkins, who leads that career category with 3,020.