Clemson Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins got off to a fast start as a freshman in 2011: he scored a touchdown on his first career touch. Nearly every week, he was named ACC rookie of the week or receiver of the week, he set five school records, and he became Clemson’s first freshman first-team All-American.
He was as good a kick returner as a wide receiver, racking up 2,288 all-purpose yards, and he was the first freshman from the ACC to be honored by the Associated Press as a first-team All-American.
College football fans were eager to see how the electrifying player fared after a full year in the program, but the proverbial “sophomore slump” struck before the season began. A preseason ACC Player of the Year candidate, Watkins missed four games in 2012 due to suspension, injury, and illness.
Watkins was suspended for the first two games of 2012 after an offseason arrest for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and painkillers for which he did not have a prescription. Once Watkins was reinstated, he got injured, opening the door for junior DeAndre Hopkins to emerge as one of the nation’s top receivers.
“I was behind from two games I missed, and I wasn’t practicing that much. Tajh and DeAndre had a great thing going on,” Watkins told The Greenville News this week.
Even after missing time and sharing the workload with Hopkins, Watkins still logged 57 catches for 708 yards and three touchdowns and became one of only three players in ACC history to catch at least 50 passes as both a freshman and sophomore. (Fun fact: All three are from Clemson: Watkins, Hopkins and former Tiger Derrick Hamilton.)
By normal standards, a season in which a player misses four games but averages 12.4 yards per catch en route to 700+ yards is a pretty darn good season. But even though Watkins called last year’s stats “not bad,” he knows he’s not judged by normal standards, because the bar he set for himself as a freshman is so exceptionally high.
In his first year, he set Clemson records in receiving yards (1,219), receiving yards per game (93.8), receiving touchdowns (12), kickoff returns (33), and kickoff return yards (826). He led the ACC in all-purpose yardage and was the ACC Rookie of the Year, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, and the only freshman or sophomore to be a semifinalist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.
It’s a tough act for anyone to follow, perhaps even tougher for someone to try to repeat. Maybe if Watkins had been fully healthy in 2012, he could’ve done it, but he was often injured. And frankly, with Hopkins and running back Andre Ellington, the Clemson offense didn’t need him to replicate his rookie performance.
This season, it will be a different story. Ellington and Hopkins are both off to the NFL, which means the Tigers offense will once again be in the capable, talented hands of Watkins and senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. If Watkins stays healthy – he says his goal is to get stronger and prove his durability – and those two reestablish a solid connection, the Clemson Tigers should be the team to beat in the ACC.