With Watkins injured, Nuk Hopkins steps up again, when Tigers need him most

Dabo Swinney: 'Nuk was awesome. So proud of him. So good to see him step up and beat a Top 10 defense'

Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins catches a ball for a first down during the fourth quarter at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl at the Georgie Dome in Atlanta, Ga.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins catches a ball for a first down during the fourth quarter at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl at the Georgie Dome in Atlanta, Ga.

All week long leading up to Clemson’s Chick-fil-A Bowl showdown with LSU, teammates kept talking up Sammy Watkins.

This would be the game, they said, where the wide receiver with near limitless talent would turn in his finest performance of 2012, saving his best for the last night of 2012. With Watkins and DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins catching and Tajh Boyd throwing, the Upstate-based Tigers would unleash an aerial assault even a great LSU defense couldn’t weather.

“Sammy’s going to bring his ‘A’ game to this one,” tailback Andre Ellington said earlier in the week.

However Watkins’ night – and season - ended after just two plays, while it was Hopkins who gave the Bayou Bengals the most headaches and turned in a magnificent performance in his team’s heart-stopping 25-24 victory.

He also found his way into the record books several times in what might have been his last game in a Clemson uniform.

On a second and seven call from his own 28 Watkins took a pitch from Tajh Boyd and was popped hard at the line of scrimmage by Barkevious Mingo, fumbling and falling awkwardly.

Craig Loston recovered the loose ball but Watkins stayed on the ground, writhing in pain.

After being tended to for a couple of minutes by the Clemson staff he was finally carried off the field and then transported to the locker room on a cart.

He was diagnosed with a right ankle injury and even though X-rays were negative, he was unable to return.

“I talked to Sammy and he thinks he’s gonna be alright,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Nothing’s broke or anything like that.”

Hopkins, meanwhile, became Clemson’s single-season receiving leader on the next offensive series, hauling in a 17-yard pass from Boyd that gave him a school-best 1,243 yards. The D.W Daniel product finished the night with 191 yards and two key touchdowns. It was the third straight game Hopkins amassed at least 100 receiving yards in a bowl game, another first in the annals of Clemson football.

The junior also reeled in a touchdown pass from Boyd in the second quarter that gave him a TD in 10 consecutive games. That set a new high-water mark in the ACC.

That wasn’t all.

Hopkins’ score was his 17th TD catch of the year, tying an ACC record, and his seventh reception of the first half was the 200th of his career

His second half TD gave him yet another record on one of the greatest nights in Tiger football history. And of course his clutch catch on Clemson’s final drive, converting on fourth-and-long, will be played over and over in the minds of fans.

He and Aaron Kelly (232) are the only Clemson players with at least 200 career catches in school history.

“Nuk was awesome,” Swinney said. “So proud of him. So good to see him step up and beat a Top 10 defense.”

While the night was a record-setting one for the man they call “Nuk,” the Chick-fil-A Bowl capped off a tumultuous season for the 19-year old Watkins. He was suspended for the first two games of the 2012 season due to an arrest for misdemeanor drug possession, then missed another game at Boston College while suffering from a stomach virus.

His numbers were still solid entering the season finale: 57 catches for 708 yards and three touchdowns. But Watkins had played in only nine games and started just seven, putting Hopkins in the spotlight.

A freshman All-American as an all purpose player as well as ACC Rookie of the Year in 2011, Watkins was voted preseason ACC Player of the Year back in July.

Watkins quickly established himself as one of the country’s most exciting players last year, ending the season with 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 scores.

He also paced the team in kick returns with one touchdown and 25-yard return average, and his astonishing speed – which sometimes seemed to include an extra gear – made him a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate coming into his sophomore campaign.

Yet as the clock ticked down to double zeroes on the 2012 season, Watkins could only look forward to what he hopes is a healthier and happier new year.

As for Hopkins – who could test the NFL waters – his place as one of the Tigers’ all-time greats is secure.

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