CLEMSON — It didn’t take long for Sammy Watkins to show Clemson’s fans just how special he was.
26 seconds, in fact.
On the second offensive play of the Tigers’ 2011 season opener against Troy, the freshman receiver bolted down the right flat of the field, plucked Tajh Boyd’s pass out of the air and rolled 33 yards for the season’s first touchdown.
It was Watkins’ first career touch, and it came only 26 seconds into the game – giving him the shortest wait for a touchdown in a Clemson career.
That was a major harbinger of what lay ahead. Watkins authored the best freshman season ever by a Clemson and ACC receiver and one of the best ever by any freshman receiver.
Watkins rolled up 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, adding 32 rushes for 231 yards and 33 kick returns for 826 yards – including a game-changing 89 yard kickoff return at Maryland.
His game-breaking athleticism and ability make him one of college football’s most exciting players, and one of Clemson’s most valuable. Watkins checks in at No.2 in our ongoing countdown of the Tigers’ 20 most valuable players.
Last fall, Watkins set Clemson program records for receiving yards and receiving yards per game (93.8) and ACC freshman records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns while compiling 2,288 all-purpose yards. At Maryland, he led the comeback from a 38-17 second-half deficit with three second-half touchdowns, finishing with a school-record 345 all-purpose yards.
He was named national freshman of the year by Rivals.com and The Sporting News, national offensive freshman of the year by CollegeFootballNews.com and was a consensus first-team freshman All-America.
He was a first-team All-American, according to the Associated Press and FoxSports.com, becoming only the third true freshman to be named an AP first-team All-American. The other two: Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson.
Watkins came to Clemson with immense hype; he was rated as the nation’s No.1 wideout and No.9 overall prospect by 247Sports.com, the No.3 wideout and No.15 overall player by Rivals.com and No.5 wideout and No.41 overall player by Scout.com.
Three workouts into preseason practice, he moved into the starting lineup and stayed there. Coaches raved about his maturity and ability to quickly pick up Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
He injected game-breaking ability into an offense badly in need of it, opening up the field for teammates like DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington and Dwayne Allen.
Opponents had to pay attention to Watkins, and often that wasn’t enough. It was no coincidence that the offense struggled after he suffered a separated shoulder in mid-November against Wake Forest; he wasn’t fully healthy the rest of the season.
And with a winter and spring practice to mature and fix his shortcomings, there’s no reason to think he won’t be better this fall.
An early May arrest for possession of marijuana and drugs used to control ADHD cloud his early-season outlook; coach Dabo Swinney said last month that Watkins is likely to miss at least some game time, although when and how much remains unclear.
Playing without Watkins should only illustrate how much Watkins means to his team and his offense.
He is, without question, one of Clemson’s most valuable assets.