Sammy Watkins isn’t worried about how high he’ll be selected in the NFL draft Thursday night, just how he’ll continue to keep improving for the team that picks him.
Watkins has carried a steady approach to football and his performance since he picked Clemson after being one of Florida’s top high school players – and says that won’t change in the pros.
This past Saturday, Watkins attended a high-school fundraiser put together by his agent, Tory Dandy, and signed autographs two chairs down from South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Watkins, considered a possible top-5 selection, has been projected as high as No. 2 to St. Louis.
“I don’t have too much to say about that,” Watkins said with a smile about possibly being the top pick. “If I go number one, that’s fine. If I go number five, that’s fine. I can only control what I can control and that’s on the field.”
That’s also where Watkins has excelled.
He was a breakout star as a freshman in 2011, helping Clemson to its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in two decades. He caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning a spot on the AP All-America team along with several other honors.
Watkins’ highly anticipated sophomore season was short-circuited before it began with a drug arrest in the spring of 2012. That led to a two-game suspension from coach Dabo Swinney and a season in which Watkins had 57 catches for 708 yards and three TDs.
It was a performance that humbled even the mild-mannered Watkins, showing him how quickly dreams of success can fall apart.
“It helped me out growing up and trying to become a great man,” he said.
Watkins became a greater player in his final year with the Tigers. He set single-season Clemson records with 101 catches and 1,464 yards, and matched his freshman output with 12 touchdowns.
Watkins capped his college career with another record-setting show with 16 receptions for 227 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-35 Orange Bowl win against Ohio State, Clemson’s first win in a Bowl Championship Series game.
As expected, Watkins declared for the NFL draft a few days later and dove headfirst into workouts to prepare for the NFL combine, where he put up a time of 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash. But along with Watkins’ speed comes a power that lets him muscle away from defenders and break into the open field. He showed that from the start of last season with a 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run in Clemson’s 38-35 win against Georgia in the opener, running through one tackler and away from three more.
“It’s just something I’ve always done,” Watkins said.
While several prospects – think Clowney and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel – have had their games dissected and characters poured over by pro evaluators and media, Watkins has been universally praised for his attitude and ability.
“Sammy, from Day 1, has been what Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says, a humble superstar,” said Dandy of Relativity Sports.
Former Super Bowl winning coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden agrees.
“I think what sets Sammy apart is his sincerity and passion for the game,” Gruden said last week. “Everyone I’ve talked to has come away very impressed with Watkins’ passion to be great and to put forth a tremendous work ethic.”
Watkins had a full complement of NFL teams on hand in March to watch him work out at Clemson’s pro day and has met individually with several teams, including the Rams, who hold the second spot in Thursday night’s opening round.
Watkins had a grin and a few words for the lines of Clemson fans he met last weekend at Woodruff High with his No. 2 jersey ready for a signature. He understands he’ll be looked at to reach another level in the pros and is ready to make that happen.
“You’ve still got to play football at the end of the day,” Watkins said, “so wherever I go, it’ll be a blessing for me.”