CLEMSON — This season, DeAndre Hopkins has turned numerous heads on football fields across the ACC.
Monday afternoon, a few reporters’ heads turned when Hopkins walked into the WestZone area where Clemson conducts player interviews.
Despite emerging as the Tigers’ most valuable player of the first half, the junior wide receiver is notoriously media-shy. Before Monday, he’d spoken with reporters only three times since mid-August, and none since late September.
“I let my play do the talking,” Hopkins said. “There’s not too much that needs to be said. “I feel like if there’s anything that needs to be said, it’s politicking.”
He might not like it much, but Hopkins has joined the debate about the nation’s best wide receiver – and raised questions about his Clemson future beyond this season. Entering Saturday’s noon home date with Virginia Tech, Hopkins is averaging 129.5 yards receiving per game – best in the ACC and No.3 among FBS receivers. His 8.2 receptions per game lead the ACC and rank seventh nationally. And his midseason totals – 49 receptions, 777 yards, eight touchdowns – are on pace to smash his career bests of 72 receptions, 978 yards and five scores, set last season.
“With a guy like him, he comes to work every day, he’s consistent,” said Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. “He always wants to improve and be at his best. Perform at a high level. That’s what he’s been doing. I don’t think there’s been a receiver performing at the level he is in college football right now.”
With every catch, Clemson crowds chant “Nuuuk” – Hopkins’ nickname. It’s a childhood moniker that stems from the “Nuk” brand pacifiers he used growing up – “it was the only one I didn’t chew through,” he said.
“I tell people I got (the nickname) because I’m a nuclear bomb. I’m explosive,” he said. “If (fans) find out they might throw some pacifiers on the field.”
Hopkins says his big season “might be a surprise to some,” but not to him.
“I’ve been doing it since my freshman year,” he said. “It’s not a surprise to me. It might be to some people, but I knew I could do it since my freshman year and I feel like I’ve shown that.”
His breakout is rooted in an offseason full of hard work, as well as some unexpected opportunity.
Last winter marked the first time Hopkins hadn’t gone directly from football to basketball – he played all four years at D.W. Daniel High School, making the All-State team twice, and spent his freshman season as a reserve on Brad Brownell’s Clemson roster.
Last offseason was spent honing his strength and speed and concentrating strictly on football.
“It’s paid off a lot,” he said. “(Strength and conditioning) coach (Joey) Batson and coach (Larry) Greenlee do a great job of getting us prepared for the season and keeping our bodies fresh, not overloading us too much with weights.”
The struggles of returning national freshman of the year Sammy Watkins have also thrust him into the spotlight. Watkins was suspended for the first two games and missed the Boston College game with a frightening abdominal virus; he is still working his way back into shape and still seeks his first receiving score.
“With the absence of Sammy, it’s benefited him in some ways,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “He’s taken on that responsibility, lean on me a little bit now. It’s good to see.”
He chafed at questions that he was overshadowed by Watkins a year ago, and takes great care to avoid similar comparisons this year.
“Sammy’s a great player,” he said. “I’m happy for all the accomplishments and achievements he had last year. I was in the back, having a great season myself. I was happy. I wasn’t complaining about anything …. I don’t want people to overshadow how good Sammy is that I’m having a good season. Like last year, when Sammy was having a great season, people overshadowed me. People see we’re both great receivers, no matter who’s getting the ball.”
His breakout is also a product of consistent chemistry, honed over three years with Boyd.
Boyd’s first touchdown pass – against Presbyterian in 2010 – landed in Hopkins’ arms.
In the season opener against Auburn, Clemson faced a crucial fourth-quarter goal-line situation. Boyd looked down the line at Hopkins, who nodded at him. Boyd audibled into a fade pattern, which Hopkins grabbed with a cornerback draped all over him.
“That’s something you’ve got to trust your quarterback, you’ve got to trust your receiver,” Hopkins said. “If I gave him the wrong look and he threw a slant and I was running a fade, it’d be off and probably a pick-6. So it’s trust between us and chemistry built over the years.”
Morris credits Hopkins’ excellent technical skills.
“We’ve seen some of his speed and acceleration,” He said. “He’s dependable and he’s really precise in his route-running. It’s really helped Tajh out.”
Boyd might not have Hopkins to lean on next season. He is a likely early-round NFL draft pick, and while he wouldn’t address his status Monday, he is expected to have a difficult choice to make in January.
In all likelihood, chances remaining to see him in a Clemson uniform are like his media appearances: fleeting at best.