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With freshmen blazing trail, Tigers soaring to national relevance

by | CBSSports.com
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Sammy Watkins is second in the ACC in receiving yards with 728. (Getty Images)  
Sammy Watkins is second in the ACC in receiving yards with 728. (Getty Images)  

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Mike Bellamy and Sammy Watkins have raced against each other once.

The pair crouched next to each other in the starting blocks this past spring, their speed and status as five-star football prospects drawing an unusually large crowd to a regular season track meet.

Bellamy was Florida's Class 3A 100-meter champion in 2010.

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Watkins, Clemson's record-setting freshman receiver, was Florida's Class 2A 100-meter champion in 2011.

"It was packed," Bellamy said. "A lot of people were interested."

The two had become close friends since they faxed letters of intent to Clemson in February, but they knew bragging rights were to be at stake as the winner would be dubbed the fastest amateur athlete in southern Florida.

The way Watkins recalls the race he stumbled early but nearly caught up to Bellamy, losing by five one hundredths of a second, 10.5 seconds to 10.55 seconds.

"He doesn't really talk about it," Watkins said. "He knows he can't beat me now."

Bellamy, who ran a 4.29 second 40-yard dash at a Florida camp last year, has a different take.

"I don't go around saying I'm faster than [Sammy]," Bellamy said, "but if you really need an answer to that I am the fastest."

While both claim to be the faster than the other, Virginia Tech coaches believe this: Clemson is the fastest team the Hokies have faced since playing the great Miami teams of the early 2000s.

To understand how No. 8 Clemson has arrived at a surprising 7-0 start, how fortunes have changed so swiftly, how the Tigers have gone from a six-win team with an embattled coach in Dabo Swinney a year ago to an undefeated record as November nears, is to understand what an infusion of rare speed from a precocious freshman class has meant to the Tigers. These Tigers are fast and they aren't going anywhere.

"I've said a few times if anybody is going to get us they better get us this year," Swinney said, "because when some of these guys grow up we have a chance to be pretty good."

Watkins might be the most impactful freshman in program history, at least the most important freshman since defensive tackle William Perry led Clemson to its only national title in 1981.

Watkins leads the ACC in receiving yards (728). In seven career games, he already has the most touchdown catches of any Clemson freshman (8) and three games of at least 140 receiving yards, one away from Perry Tuttle for the program's career mark.

Watkins has turned bubble-screens into home-run threats. He's run away from the speedy defensive backs of Auburn and Florida State for long touchdowns. CBSSports.com draft analyst Chad Reuter said Watkins' acceleration is "rare." So is his 4.37 second speed in the 40, which has led quarterback Tajh Boyd to underthrow Watkins on several occasions.

"I've told him to throw his arm out," Watkins said of deep throws. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is already being projected by some analysts as a first-round draft pick in 2014.

That Watkins ended up racing Bellamy last spring is something of a surprise considering Watkins did not enjoy his first exposure to track. But track was a way to stay off the streets of his troubled Ft. Myers neighborhood and it was a way to become a better football player.

A former youth football star his stepfather had known was gunned down two houses down from Watkins' front door when Watkins was a freshman at South Ft. Myers High. Mike McMiller told his stepson to not forget that night: "Stay the course," McMiller said.

Watkins vowed to make the most of his talents. He lived at the local gym and high school track, trimming his 100-meter dash time from 11.5 seconds as a sophomore to 10.45 seconds as a senior.

"There are a lot of people like me in my neighborhood," Watkins said, "probably even faster, they run just like me. If they lined up and raced me, they'd be right there, but they didn't follow their dreams, they went the other way."

He stuck with his commitment to Clemson, a campus he fell in love with, a place where Watkins says "it's real hard to find trouble." He kept his commitment to the program even as Florida coach Will Muschamp and his offensive coordinator Charlie Weis traveled to Watkins' high school days before signing day. Watkins declined to speak with either man.

"I looked at [Clemson] as the perfect place, perfect time," Watkins said. "We can turn the [program] around."

Bellamy was also a half-hearted track athlete, using the sport to make him a better football player. While Bellamy lived on a VertiMax machine (a common tool for speed training) like Watkins, he has also worked out with Tennessee Titans star running back Chris Johnson to improve his speed.

While Watkins has already arrived as a star, Bellamy is just beginning to show his potential. He took his first college carry 75 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Wofford. He showed a rare gear against Virginia Tech on a decisive 31-yard touchdown. Bellamy's playing time has increased slightly, though he has struggled to grasp the playbook and pass protection assignments.

"A lot has to do with me not learning my assignments and plays," Bellamy said. "I can't fault the coaches at all."

But offensive coordinator Chad Morris said the staff is gaining confidence in him and expecting a much larger role for Bellamy in the season's second half.

And it's not just Bellamy and Watkins who have track-championship caliber speed. Reserve freshman receiver Joe Craig, timed at 4.31 seconds in the 40, might be the fastest player on the Clemson roster.

Swinney thinks fellow freshman receiver Martavis Bryant, a 6-foot-4 long strider, might have the fastest top-end speed and freshman corner Martin Jenkins is also a 100-meter track champion in Georgia.

Their own game-breaking plays are obvious. Watkins' 89-yard, fourth-quarter kick return for a touchdown at Maryland made national highlights, and was part of a single-game program record of 345 total yards.

But the speed also creates space. The speed creates room for teammates. It makes life easier for Boyd, the quarterback.

"If they play zone coverage you get air in the zone quick, you stress the zone in a hurry when you have speed like that on the field," Swinney said. "As opposed to when you have a little less speed the zone is slower to expand."

Last season tight end Dwayne Allen couldn't find space to operate in the middle of the field. Miami assigned its best cover corner, Brandon Harris, to Allen. Allen caught just one touchdown pass in 2010, and already has four this season. Speed has made Allen a better tight end, Boyd a better quarterback, and Swinney a better coach.

"We are after speed," Swinney said, "and both those guys have a ton of it."

Maybe we'll never know who is faster, Bellamy or Watkins, but Bellamy believes this to be an absolute truth: "We have the fastest team in the country."

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