FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Clemson’s coaching staff knew early what they had in an uber-talented, yet understated freshman Sammy Watkins.
Nationally and even locally to an extent, that wasn’t the case, but three days into camp, the south Florida native won his starting spot — and on his first collegiate catch, he left defenders in the dust on a 33-yard touchdown reception.
At the forefront of the school’s first ACC title in 20 years, Watkins went on to set Clemson single-season records in yards (1,225), touchdowns (12) and much more.
“Nobody knew about Sammy Watkins,” his offensive coordinator Chad Morris recalled this week. “He was just kind of coming on the scene and had a great freshman year, was a freshman All-American.”
That season, however, set a near impossible standard for his sophomore campaign, where one key component was missing from his game.
“The biggest thing that I saw with him, it wasn’t necessarily a lack of focus,” Morris said. “It was just his ability to get into a rhythm. He was going to have to play more than six snaps in a row before he has to come out.
“He wasn’t in the shape. He was a little heavy. He wasn’t quite as explosive as he was his freshman year. So his endurance wasn’t as much as it should have been.”
Watkins scored a touchdown every 6.9 receptions in 2011, which dropped to every 19 in 2012. He finished with a respectable 700-plus receiving yards, in a season bookended by a two-game suspension and then a second-play broken ankle in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“He kept coming back and telling me, ‘Coach, I’ve got to get back into the elite track shape that I was in going into my freshman year,’” Morris said.
“So he worked extremely hard at that this summer to make that happen.”
Opposing secondaries have seen the product of that work all season long.
The South Fort Myers product earned a spot among the Biletnikoff Award finalists with an ACC-leading 1,237 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 7.1 receptions per game. Leading the Tiger receivers in snaps (590), Watkins has averaged a touchdown every 8.5 receptions and posted nine games with six or more catches (109.8 yards per in those contests).
His deep-threat connection with Tajh Boyd has paced the nation with 13 catches of 25 yards, four of 60 yards and the only player nationally with two grabs of 90 yards (career-long of 96).
“Me and Tajh worked hard over the offseason,” Watkins said. “From a player standpoint, I think I grew as a mature player just learning the game, and the coaches and the players definitely helped me out in the offseason.”
In Friday’s Orange Bowl, Clemson matches its No. 11 passing offense (329.2) versus Ohio State’s No. 105 passing defense (259.5).
“In this offense, I don’t think it can be stopped what I do,” said Watkins. “This offense creates one-on-ones with the defense. You can manage me, but you can’t stop me.”
“I think I’m the best receiver in the nation and I think (Ohio State’s) cornerbacks should have their chance. Overall I think I can’t be guarded, that’s just my mindset.”
His 2013 campaign started with similar choice words — confident Clemson would “beat the mess” out of Georgia. He says his confidence back then and throughout the season was a directive to his team more than anything.
“Every player knows his team and that’s why I was so high on this team,” said Watkins. “You have to talk towards things like that. That’s what people on the team want to see the leaders do. For me, that was direct quote to state not only for the Georgia game but also this season. Drove our team and everybody believed that we’d win.
“For me, that was definitely was (a message) from day one I would work hard this season and I would be back.”
Watkins didn’t submit for a grade from the NFL draft advisory board, as a consensus projected No. 1 wide receiver. He will announce his final decision on going pro likely in the midnight hour in Sun Life Stadium in a couple days.
Morris said there’s a spot waiting on him next year if he decides to return.
“On our travel plane that we travel to away games, all the seniors get to sit in first class. So we’re excited about watching Sammy sitting in first class next year,” Morris said with a smile. “I reminded him of that this week as we got on the plane. I said, ‘Just think, next year, when you get on a plane, you’ll be able to sit in first class.’ Like he always does, he grins ear to ear.”
Already’s Clemson all-time receiving leader, the star junior is another monster game from another set of school records both career — nine receptions (Aaron Kelly, 232) and two touchdown receptions (DeAndre Hopkins, 27), and single-season — four catches (Kelly, 88) and 169 receiving yards (Hopkins, 1,405). The Tigers’ third-year coordinator is ready to see what Watkins has in store for a potential final act.
“To watch him evolve over the last three years, it’s been a great ride and (I’m) excited about this game with him this Friday night.”