One by one, the highly-rated draft eligible players on Clemson’s 2015 defense announced they were moving on.
First it was defensive end Shaq Lawson, who made it known in December he would enter the NFL Draft. Shortly after the national title game, DE Kevin Dodd, CB Mackensie Alexander and safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse announced they were turning pro, as well.
First-team All-ACC defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, a redshirt junior at the time, considered joining his teammates and bolting for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining, but ultimately made the decision he felt was best for him.
“I didn’t really want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth,” Watkins told The State. “Most of the guys that left, they were in a class behind me. Watching those guys go, I was kind of like the only older guy left in this situation, but I really thought about it, prayed on it and felt like it would be best that I come back.”
Watkins’ decision provided a sense of relief for Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who had one less hole to replace on a defense he knew was already going to depend on youth.
Venables also felt it would be easier to replace starters in the secondary than ones at the line of scrimmage.
In addition to unfinished business, Watkins returned because he felt he could become a better player.
He finished the 2015 season with 69 tackles, including eight for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Still, by adding strength and becoming more serious about football, Watkins felt he could take his game to another level.
Halfway through the season, he has nearly matched his sack total from 15 games last year with three.
“I really felt like I could be better as a player,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was as dominant last year. I’ve gotten bigger, stronger and faster. I put on some weight but I gained speed. I wanted to be a lot more physical and assert my dominance and be a better pass rusher as well.”
Watkins hasn’t only improved physically, but also as a leader. The other starters on Clemson’s defensive line are sophomore Christian Wilkins, redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell and true freshman Dexter Lawrence. The redshirt senior Watkins is the veteran of the group.
“I knew that was one of the roles that I was going to have to take on for my last season. We had a lot of young guys come in, and I’m truthfully the only guy with a lot of experience,” he said. “That’s one role that I really wanted to work on, preaching to the young guys and leading by example. I knew I had to take on that when I came back.”
Venables has noticed a difference in Watkins’ play and leadership qualities from the end of last season to now.
“I think it’s helped him in more ways than he could probably have ever imagined,” Venables said. “He chose to come back with a really good group of young players that like to work, that are willing to be led, but that brought the best out of him because of their work ethic and consistency. I thought Carlos needed an opportunity to mature, not that he was real immature, but I think physically understanding the game, mentally refining some things, developing and exhausting his senior year. Thus far he’s done that.”
Who: No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 3-0)
vs. N.C. State (4-1, 1-0)
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium