Record-setting receiver Sammy Watkins knew before the season began it likely would be his last at Clemson.
Watkins announced earlier this week he’d given up his senior season to enter the NFL draft. He stopped back on campus for this weekend’s football banquet before heading off to train in Tampa, Fla., for his expected invite to the NFL combine.
Watkins said Friday he talked with his coaches before the year started about returning to his freshman numbers that put him on the AP All-America team. Watkins did even better with 101 catches for 1,464 yards this season, both Clemson single-season records.
Watkins didn’t totally block out talk of his high draft status, and worked to finish college ball with a flourish.
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“I think that’s how I approached the season and that’s how the coaches approached me this year,” Watkins said. “They were going to get the best out of me and they were going to get the ball to me all year and I’ve got to be a complete player.”
“I think I managed that well this year,” Watkins continued.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior has been considered by several analysts the top receiver in May’s draft.
There were a few times, Watkins said with a grin, when he would joke with coach Dabo Swinney or receiver coach Jeff Scott about coming back. In the end, Watkins was ready to reach the goal he had worked toward since playing youth football in Fort Myers, Fla.
“The dream is here now,” Watkins said.
Not that his time at Clemson was all as smooth as his pass routes.
After a stunning freshman season in 2011 — he had 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 TDs to help Clemson to its first ACC crown in two decades — Watkins was arrested the following May and charged with two counts of misdemeanor drug possession. Voted the 2012 preseason ACC player of the year, Watkins was suspended for the first two games by Swinney and never found his football groove.
Still, Watkins believes the incident helped him to reach this point.
“Everyone thinks of that as a bad point of my life, but I think it helped me out,” he said. “It helped me see the bigger picture.”
While his sophomore numbers of 57 catches for 708 yards sounded solid, Watkins understood he had to dig deeper this season. He got stronger, putting 10 pounds or so of muscle on the skinny physique he had when he came to campus.
Watkins also worked on his downfield blocking, not wanting that to impede his rise on NFL draft boards. He said ex-teammate DeAndre Hopkins — who gave up his senior season last January and was a first-round pick of the Houston Texans — emphasized that pro scouts have seen all the great grabs and breakaway runs.
“They’re looking at the plays when you’re not getting the ball,” Watkins said. “That’s what I wanted to focus on this year.”
But Watkins’ true talent comes with the ball in his hands. His best game at Clemson might have been his last one as Watkins was voted the Orange Bowl’s most outstanding player after catching 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-35 victory against Ohio State.
Watkins kept his cool in the postgame ceremony, but got emotional in the locker room as he walked off the field for Clemson a final time.
“I didn’t want to cry in front of everybody,” he said.
His favorite accomplishment? Being the only receiver in the country this year and first in Clemson history with two touchdowns of more than 90 yards. He had a 91-yard grab against Syracuse and a 96-yard catch against Virginia.
Watkins feels ready to take his talents to the NFL. He’s prepared for the hard questions evaluators might have on his drug arrest and why he struggled at times against Florida State and rival South Carolina.
“I’m looking forward to that time,” he said. “To letting those guys know who I am and how I grew here at Clemson, how I’m for the team and the kind of citizen I am.”