CLEMSON — Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a long to-do list this spring and summer. Build back his speed, build back his strength, build back his endurance…
Build back quarterback Tajh Boyd’s trust in him.
Watkins could see that Boyd didn’t look for him as a sophomore the way he did when Watkins was a freshman. A two-game suspension following an offseason arrest and an illness threw him way off his first-year form. So Watkins went about restoring a relationship.
“You need that connection with your quarterback – to show him that even if you’re not looking at me, you can still throw it my way. You need that trust, that bond,” Watkins said.
“Last year he didn’t look at me that much. DeAndre (Hopkins) was on that hot streak. Now I really need to be that leader. You never know when Tajh is going to throw you that ball. My freshman year he’d throw it to me even if there were two or three dudes (covering) me.”
To use Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s term, Watkins was “superhuman” as a freshman. He made 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011. As a sophomore he wasn’t even the Tigers’ best wide receiver. Hopkins (now with the Houston Texans) made 82 catches for 1,405 yards, while Watkins slipped to 57 catches, 708 yards and three touchdowns.
Starting Saturday, when eighth-ranked Clemson hosts fifth-ranked Georgia (8 p.m., ABC), Watkins will start working on putting fear back in opposing defenses.
“I think I’m feared, but I also think everybody is just waiting on that first game to see if I’ve still got it,” said Watkins. “This is a game – and a season – to prove to everyone I can still make those plays I did my freshman year.”
Watkins was among the most dangerous offensive players in college football, whether he was running long routes, catching screens or running reverses. Then in May of 2012 he was pulled over in a traffic stop, and police found marijuana and two pills for which he did not have a prescription. He was charged with two counts of possession and completed an intervention program as a first-time offender.
Swinney suspended him for the first two games of the 2012 season. Later that season, Watkins missed time due to an illness.
“I don’t think he ever got into a rhythm. There was nothing he could do to get into that rhythm,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “It was frustrating for him. It was frustrating for us. We would always think, ‘Now he’s ready. He’s having a decent day so we’re seeing him now.’ But it never happened.”
A leg injury limited Watkins to a single play against Louisiana State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Then in the spring he started building himself back up, physically and mentally.
“There’s no comparison in Sammy from last year to this year. He’s a lot more explosive, a lot more lean. Very determined, very focused,” said Morris. “He’s probably had as good a camp as anybody we’ve had.”
Watkins is still close with Hopkins – the two speak or text almost daily. Hopkins told him this week his goal must be to have a better season than Hopkins just had. Hopkins also told Watkins that in the NFL, wide receivers aren’t just defined by their catches. If Watkins wants to be special in the pros, he must become a better blocker.
The final step in this process was reconnecting with Boyd, one of the top returning quarterbacks in college football. Watkins spent a lot of time with Boyd over the summer, running stadium steps and playing catch in the rain to practice holding on to wet balls.
“I don’t think me and Tajh were ever on the same page” last season, Watkins said. “I was practicing slow and playing slow in the games. I don’t think I was in shape or prepared mentally.
“I was really humbled. I now realize football can be taken from you in the blink of an eye. I’m a better person now. And I’m bigger and faster.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell