Entering the home-stretch of the 2013 season, this is usually the time of year where records are being broken by current players. Clemson is having to deal with Sammy Watkins approaching multiple receiving records as he closes out his college career and prepares for the NFL Draft next spring. After an unheard of freshman campaign, injuries and suspensions hindered Watkins’ ability to duplicate his numbers during his sophomore year. However, this year Watkins is back to his old form putting up numbers that, well, he should be.
A lot of chatter is being centered around the question of “is Sammy Watkins the greatest receiver to play at Clemson?” Everyone will have their own opinion on the matter, but the fact that we live in the fantasy football era clouds people’s judgment on debates such as this one. It is impossible to compare Watkins with receivers from the Danny Ford-era based on records or statistics because the offense and the style of the game was so much different than it is today. Statistics are not a rational way to compare players throughout the history of the program, especially with quarterbacks or receivers. Every college quarterback slings the ball for 3,000 yards in today’s college football, but back in the 1980s a quarterback who passed for 2,000 yards was considered a top-tier player. The spread, hurry-up offense has enhanced college players’ numbers making it impossible to compare players based solely on statistics.
Watkins is a tremendous talent, and it is easy for people to get wrapped up in his ridiculous statistics that he has accumulated during his two-plus years at Clemson. But is he the best receiver to ever put on an orange jersey? If you ask an 18-year old he would probably say yes, but if you ask a Clemson graduate from the Charley Pell/Danny Ford/Ken Hatfield days then you would most likely receive a no.
Jerry Butler is a receiver who played at Clemson from 1975-78 on his way to becoming a regional folk hero. He played for a coach who was in over his head (Red Parker) for his first two seasons before Charley Pell righted the ship during Butler’s final two years. Butler led the Tigers in receiving yards during his final three years before he became a first-round draft pick in 1979. In an age where passing the ball was considered a gamble, Butler led the ACC in receiving yards for the 1977 and 1978 seasons. If you are ever looking for a Jerry Butler picture just take a walk down to the Esso Club and you will find a massive black and white photo of him completing “The Catch” against South Carolina in 1977.
Clemson fans were lucky that after Butler left, in stepped Perry Tuttle who also led the Tigers in receiving for three years in a row (1979-81). Tuttle became the go-to receiver in Danny Ford’s run-first offense. When Homer Jordan would throw the ball, everyone in the stadium knew who it was going to, but Tuttle would find ways to come down with the pass. He led the ACC in receptions and receiving yards for the 1980-81 seasons, but his Sports Illustrated cover photo is what most Clemson fans will remember about him. Tuttle was the best receiver in the conference and an instrumental part of the improbable national championship run in 1981.
Whenever Rodney Williams took over the starting quarterback job, receiver’s numbers dropped. Gary Cooper and Rodney Fletcher were solid receivers, but their numbers will not reflect that because of Ford’s style. After disappointing years in the 1990s under Ken Hatfield and Tommy West, the program decided to go with a coach who was offensive minded; Tommy Bowden. Receiver Rod Gardner had a great run during his final two years under Bowden, leading the ACC in receptions for the 1999 season, as well as becoming the only Clemson player to have two 1,000 receiving yard seasons. Gardner’s “The Catch 2″ in 2000 is just one of his many great moments in a Clemson uniform.
Derrick Hamilton, Kevin Youngblood, Airese Currie, and Chansi Stucky all had fine careers, but Aaron Kelly became the most productive receiver in school history by the time he graduated after the 2008 season. Since Dabo Swinney has brought in Chad Morris to call plays, DeAndre Hopkins left with great numbers and Watkins is right on his coattails this season. It is likely that Watkins will claim most of the receiving records by the time bowl season ends, but is he the gold standard? No.
Jerry Butler is still the undisputed king of receivers at Clemson.
Travis Patterson, Writer For ACC Rantsports.com. Football Writers Association of America. Follow on Twitter @tpat20. https://twitter.com/tpat20