ACC Official Sponsors
Tickets & Travel
Legal & Advertising
Sept. 22, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – A freshman stepping into a high-level college football program can usually expect one of three things: (1) a redshirt season; (2) playing on special teams; (3) a backup role with a chance to eventually work his way up as a starter.
There are always a few exceptions, and it didn’t take long for Sammy Watkins to prove he was one of those.
The wide receiver burst on the scene at Clemson, making a major impact in all three of the Tigers' wins by catching 21 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Last weekend he torched Auburn for 10 catches, 155 yards and two scores to help end the 17-game winning streak of the 2010 national champion.
That performance was really no surprise to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who said Watkins is just doing in games what he has been doing in practice since the start of preseason camp.
"My approach was to come in and help the team out," Watkins said, "whether I was playing second team, third team. Just work hard and contribute.
"Everybody wants to earn a starting position but I thought it would probably work out around the third or fourth game when I would get on the field and make a couple plays. I was making plays in camp, so they gave me a chance and I just took it."
He has done it without the benefit of spring practice, when the veteran players learned the system of new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Watkins did attend the second session of summer school and quickly became acquainted with quarterback Tajh Boyd. They worked out together, ate lunch together and began forming a bond that grows stronger.
"We just click in practice," Watkins said, "and take the stuff from practice over into games and use it."
Watkins impressed Swinney not just with his talent but with the way he played the game.
"He's polished, he's tough, (he has) the work ethic, the maturity," Swinney said. "He's got all of those things, and that's why it was such a surprise to me that he was that far along. He looks like he's been playing three or four years."
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound freshman from Fort Myers, Fla., certainly has the attention of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, whose Seminoles play at Clemson on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
"Very, very electric, great with the ball in his hands," Fisher summed up. "They hand it to him, they throw it to him, they play extremely fast and physical. Seems to be very mature for a freshman. I think he's an outstanding player and will be an outstanding player for a long time."
So how did such a standout player escape all the Florida schools? Fisher said FSU recruited Watkins but he didn’t seem interested in going there. Florida seemed like a natural fit because his brother, Jaylen, plays defensive back for the Gators.
Watkins said he wanted to go to school away from home, to a place where he could get immediate playing time instead of redshirting. And his brother gave him some good advice.
"He told me just go where you feel best, where you best fit," Watkins said. "Just follow your heart, basically. He didn’t try to convince me to go to Florida."
Clemson had Watkins on its recruiting radar for a long time. Brad Scott had recruited that area of Florida for a long time and first saw him during the spring evaluation period before Watkins’ sophomore season.
"Well, watching him practice that day you could just see his athleticism," said Scott, then an assistant coach and now the director of recruiting for football. "He had a good long body, he could run well with the ball and he was just a pup.
"We put his name on the list and kept checking on him every year and he kept getting better and better. It didn’t take us long to figure out that this was a guy we needed and wanted in our program."
The first things Scott noticed were Watkins’ speed, acceleration after the catch – his burst – and great hands. His team used him everywhere – receiver, running back, quarterback, the Wildcat formation, returning kickoffs and punts. And he would find a way to make a play in the waning moments to help his team win a close game.
"He’s one of the few athletes that you see who can just totally take over a game and put the team on his back," Scott said. "He was pretty special.
"The other thing I would say about him is tremendous work ethic. This guy works extremely hard. That was obvious when you watched him in high school. He puts in a day’s work, he’s very serious and he’s an extremely humble youngster, a very unselfish young man."
When Watkins visited Clemson, he liked everything about it – the size of the college town, the big-time football atmosphere, the coaching staff. People may think that his commitment was strengthened when the Tigers brought in Morris as the offensive coordinator with a wide-open system, but it wouldn’t have mattered.
"My heart was at Clemson," Watkins said. "I heard about coach Morris and the type of offense he had and the factor I would be in the offense and it made me want to come here even more so.
"But I was still coming here no matter what. I love it, I’m in a great situation, I’m having fun with the winning, I love the coaches, I love the players, I love school, everything. So it’s pretty good."
Watkins had no trouble picking up the offense in practice. But how would that carry over to a game? He answered that immediately, catching seven passes for 81 yards and a touchdown against Troy State in his first game. He followed up with four catches for 56 yards and a TD against Wofford.
"After seeing the receivers around me and the quarterback," Watkins said, "I knew I was going to make a big impact because we throw the ball so much. We do a lot of things out of this offense and everything happens so quick. I just have to use my ability to make plays.
"The coaches put us in great situations; they work us hard in practice so when it comes game time, things really come easy and they put the ball in our hands. That’s what every receiver likes."
Against Auburn, he gave Clemson its first lead when he took a short pass and broke it 65 yards for a touchdown early in the second half.
"We had run that play a couple times before," Watkins said. "It's like a third down conversion, a six-yard hitch. Every time before that I was taking the inside, but the last time I got it I punched it outside and it was open air so I just took off and ran into the end zone."
That’s what Swinney means about being polished and showing a level of maturity beyond his years. That’s what ACC coaches are going to have to find a way to stop in the coming games & seasons, and it’s not just his receiving skills.
Watkins has carried the ball 12 times for 79 yards, returned one punt for 12 yards and five kickoffs for a 22-yard average. The Tigers are finding ways to get him the ball much like they did C.J. Spiller, whose primary position was running back.
"They would be very similar as far as a guy that you would expect to make big plays every game and would be very difficult to defend," Scott said.
Defensive coordinators around the ACC are already looking to devise ways to contain Watkins. From his perspective, he’s looking to be more physical in his downfield blocking, to run every route full speed, to continue to prepare well and to “keep grinding” in practice.
So much attention so fast can work against a young player, but Scott likes the way Watkins has responded.
"Every day he says 'I'm still learning and I've got a lot to learn, just trying to get better every week,'" Scott said. "When you see him have that kind of success as a freshman is he mature enough to handle it? That remains to be seen. But so far he’s handled that part of it very well.
"Time will tell, but he’s got a shot at being a pretty good player, no doubt about it."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.