CLEMSON - Going into bowl practice, Clemson's coaches had to at least joke with Sammy Watkins about a senior stint in TigerTown. They knew, however, they had only one more game with the star junior.
"Me and coach (Dabo) Swinney and coach Jeff Scott messed around about it when we were at the awards show" Watkins said, returning to Clemson Friday from an extended stay in Florida. "What if I came back and won the Heisman? Won the Biletnikoff Award, because I didn't win it this year. It was a funny thing and it made you think I could come back. I could finish my senior season and hopefully put up another 1,000-yard season and be an elite player."
His mind, though, was made up before stepping onto the field back in August.
Facing the tough questions
"I think it came down to a business-aspect and something I had to do," said Watkins. "Not saying I won't miss Clemson, but I think I can go into the NFL and be that dominant receiver and make a lot of plays."
His finale was as storybook as possible, hauling in a record 16 catches and 227 yards in the Tigers' 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State. It didn't take long for the emotions of his college career's finality to hit him postgame.
"Just a lot of joy, didn't want to cry in front of anybody," Watkins said, cracking his trademark smile, "but once I got into the locker room it got kind of sad and (I was) hugging the coaches. Knowing that it was going to be my last game with the group of guys was definitely a good moment, but also a sad moment knowing that I won't be catching passes from Tajh (Boyd)."
He's bracing himself for the change in atmosphere from the college to the pros.
"Knowing I won't have a great coaching staff that cares about me, I think the NFL is totally different from college," Watkins said, "and more business up in there. Just missing that family atmosphere will be difficult on me."
Watkins leaves Clemson with 23 school records, averaging 97 receiving yards per game over his three seasons. A game he's poured hours upon hours of work into is on the verge of paying him back - big-time - as a projected top-10 pick.
"The love for football, it was the first thing (I was) in contact with was football and I wasn't good at first and I had to work my way up," Watkins said. "The dream is here now and I think I accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish in college and now it's the next chapter in the NFL and I can't wait to get there."
Already there is former Tiger and Daniel product DeAndre Hopkins, who was a mentor on campus and the same since following a similar path last year.
"He just gave me insight on how the NFL is and about the marketing and the business-aspect," said Watkins. "We always talk about football and who's good in the NFL and who's not. What guys are elite and who's not. He definitely plays that big brother role with me and updating me on what's going on."
He put some of the advice to work this season.
Watkins thankful, moving on to NFL
"(Blocking is) the first thing DeAndre came back and said," Watkins said. "That's what they watch in the film room when they evaluate when you go in the room with the teams. They're not looking at the plays you make. They know you can make the plays and catch the ball.
"That's what I wanted to focus on this year and the coaches did a great job again this spring and fall camp being so hard on me. "
Watkins will train in Tampa, Fla., with a presumed spot in the NFL combine on Feb. 23 then Clemson Pro Day and workouts before May 8's NFL draft first round. Even before former Tiger great C.J. Spiller headed north, Sammy Watkins says he grew up a Buffalo Bills fan, as well as a supporter of the Sunshine State teams.
"I love every Florida team," Watkins said. "Miami, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, I always look at those guys. Right now, they're doing a bad job, but hopefully they'll get back on the right page."
He could very well be in position to help them come 2014.