Clemson’s dynamic duo tough to contain

Hopkins and Watkins might be the best set of receivers to don a Clemson uniform

11/24/2012 12:00 AM

11/23/2012 9:31 PM

Most coaches would be thankful for one like them.

DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, two of the top receivers in college football, might be the two best to wear a Clemson uniform.

The numbers merit consideration, and the impact each has had on the team is undeniable.

“They’re the best I’ve ever been around,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week, “no question.

“I’ve had some really good players, but those two guys are from another planet.”

Swinney was a receivers coach for eight-plus years at Alabama and Clemson before becoming head coach.. He has worked with a few receivers prominent in the Clemsons record book, including Aaron Kelly, Derrick Hamilton, Jacoby Ford and Chansi Stuckey.

This season, Hopkins and Watkins have been vital components in an offense fourth nationally in scoring (44.6 points), sixth in total yardage (535.64) and ninth in passing (332.0).

Entering today’s game with South Carolina, Clemson has scored 491 points, breaking the school record set last season in 14 games.

“Nuk (Hopkins) is a little bit longer, acrobatic,” said Swinney, comparing their tools, “not that Sammy’s not, but Nuk is kind of freaky in that. Sammy has the explosiveness of a rocket — not that Nuk isn’t, but there are some tangible differences.

“Both are incredibly competitive. Both are low maintenance, humble, blue-collar workers,” he said. “They’re just given to be great.”

Hopkins, a junior from nearby Daniel High, comes from a rich bloodline of players, including his uncle, Terry Smith. Entering this season, Smith was fourth in career receptions and second in receiving yards. His numbers now trail Hopkins.

As a freshman on a roster bereft of productive receivers, Hopkins led the team in receiving though he did not start until the fifth game and missed the sixth with an injury. Last season, he took a secondary role as Watkins streaked to All-America status, but this year has belonged to Hopkins.

Through 11 games, he has 68 receptions for 1,171 yards. Hopkins set school records for receptions in a game (13 vs. Auburn), for touchdowns in a game (3 twice), season (15) and career (24), and for career receiving yardage (2,786). He has caught a touchdown pass in eight consecutive games and 10 of the 11 this season and was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation’s top receiver.

Watkins was a Biletnikoff semifinalist last season with 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also rushed for 231 yards on 23 carries and returned 33 kicks for 856 yards. In a matter of months, he went from South Fort Myers (Fla.) High School to first-team AP All-America, one of four freshmen in history.

An arrest in May for possession of narcotics cost him two games, and a stomach illness sidelined him for a third but Watkins has gained ground on Hopkins. Over the past six weeks, he has 43 catches for 595 yards and three touchdowns.

With at least one more season, Watkins could pass Hopkins on the Clemson career receiving list. He’s 12th in catches (135), ninth in receiving yards (1,890) and tied for seventh in touchdowns (15). In addition, he has 3,328 career all-purpose yards, eighth behind Ford, who played four seasons.

Finding a comparable pair of receivers is difficult because, before the turn of the century, two Clemson teams had thrown more than 300 passes in a season.

Jerry Butler and Dwight Clark are the best known set of Clemson receivers because of their NFL careers. Butler caught 105 passes for 1,732 yards and seven touchdowns over two seasons (1977-78) at Clemson, but Clark caught 28 for 472 yards and two touchdowns on teams known primarily for the run.

Until Hopkins and Watkins, Kelly (2007) and Rod Gardner (1999) had the two most productive seasons by Clemson receivers. Derrick Hamilton had a big year as a junior (2003) then left for the NFL.

Swinney said his guys are irreplaceable.

“In my career here and an Alabama, I had an all-conference guy every year,” Swinney said. “These guys are just a cut above.”

Nationally this season, Hopkins and Watkins are in the conversation with Marqise Lee and Robert Woods at Southern Cal, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey at West Virginia and Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter at Tennessee as the best set of receivers.

Desmond Howard, the former Heisman Trophy winner on ESPN GameDay, said Hopkins and Watkins might be second to Lee and Woods this season. He favors Lee, whom he called “probably the top receiver in college football.”

Watkins, he said, “is still raw. I think there’s room for improvement as good as he is.”

“I think both of them are very exciting,” he said of the Clemson receivers. “I think both of them are fantastic receivers.

“They don’t come second to many.”

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