Clemson's Sammy Watkins: Public speaker, rejuvenated receiver

Sammy Watkins was injured against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year. (USATSI)
Sammy Watkins was injured against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year. (USATSI)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- One of the toughest over-the-shoulder catches that Sammy Watkins has ever made was at coach Dabo Swinney’s football camp over the summer.

To his left or right shoulder, in front or behind him, he saw a sea of teenagers, maybe 1,000 in total -- though he says it felt like 3,000 -- all awaiting his message.

He was there to talk about his offseason arrest on drug-possession charges. Oh, good. What a light-hearted topic.

Uh, can’t we talk about my YouTube highlights?

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“At first it was kind of hard,” said Watkins, Clemson’s junior wide receiver. “They didn’t know the true story. After a while, it was a great thing … I felt like I reached some kids.”

Later, he’d visit Greenville to address kids in a lower-income area as part of his community service program stemming from the arrest.

His message was blunt: Be careful, and surround yourself with the right people.

Watkins had to deliver that before he could get to this: slashing defensive backs for 156 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson’s spring game Saturday in Death Valley.

Watkins showed some of that ability last season, but the Tigers didn’t get all of him. Not the All-American Watkins from 2011. Not enough of this Watkins.

Watkins knows exactly why.

Watkins’ arrest in May 2012 on two counts of misdemeanor possession -- the police report said he had marijuana in his car and on his person, plus non-prescription Adderall and Vyvanse with him -- slowed his stratospheric rise to college football folklore for a good eight months, Watkins said.

Over the summer, Watkins missed 7-on-7 workouts with teammates because of community service work as part of his pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.

Teammates were getting better. DeAndre Hopkins was definitely getting better. Watkins wasn’t.

The missed time, coupled with Watkins figuring he could high-step into another All-American campaign, led to a sub-par year by his standards.

After 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman, Watkins missed nearly four games in 2012 and didn’t match the previous year’s production when he was in the lineup -- 57 catches for 708 yards and three scores.

Clemson sat Watkins for two games as punishment for the arrest. He also missed a game with an abdominal virus and left the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on the Tigers’ first drive after taking a hit from LSU defensive lineman Barkevious Mingo.

In a full season, Watkins' numbers would have projected out to 76 catches for 942 yards and 4.5 touchdowns, which is a decent season for most receivers.

Anyone who has watched Watkins knows those numbers won’t suit him.

“I didn’t think I would step back. I was thinking I’d go and do the same thing [as in 2011],” Watkins said. “But you face reality when you know you come to the game and it feels different. People are playing you different, playing you harder. You have tougher guys looking at you.”

Swinney asked Watkins to speak at his camp because he felt campers could benefit from the message.

He also trusts Watkins.

“He took ownership of it,” said Swinney of the arrest.

That doesn’t mean Watkins gets a pass this offseason. The Tigers staff is clearly pushing Watkins to ensure he maximizes his enormous potential.

When asked why Watkins got so many reps in the spring game, in which quarterback Tajh Boyd didn’t play, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Watkins needed as many as he could get.

Clemson is moving Watkins to the boundary position, which the NFL-bound Hopkins played last season. The boundary receiver operates on the shorter side of the field in Clemson’s hurry-up offense.

“He’s got a lot of work to do,” Morris said, “if he’s going to pick up where he left off his freshman year.”

Ah, the freshman year. Watkins will probably keep hearing about it unless he duplicates or surpasses that production.

Watkins isn’t sure if he believes in the sophomore slump. But the way he sees it, if Morris refers to, it isn’t so big.

“[Last offseason] made me approach the spring totally different,” he said. “I can’t just come to the field and make plays. I expect the most for myself.”

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