CLEMSON — Sammy Watkins has spent the first two weeks on the sidelines, watching his teammates on No. 11 Clemson put on an offensive show.
So Tigers coach Dabo Swinney had a simple message this week for his All-American receiver, back after a two-game suspension Saturday against Furman.
“We’re 2-0, Sammy,” the coach joked, “Don’t mess it up.”
Not much chance of that.
Watkins missed Clemson wins over Auburn and Ball State because of an offseason drug arrest. Swinney promised Watkins would see extensive action for the Tigers (2-0), who are expected to have little trouble with their in-state, Football Championship Subdivision opponent at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Watkins was one of game’s most dynamic stars last season. He had 82 catches as a freshman and set school records with 1,219 yards receiving and 12 touchdown grabs. Watkins also averaged 25 yards on kickoff returns with a return TD.
Watkins became the first true freshman in Atlantic Coast Conference history be make the AP All-American team and the first at any school to do it since Oklahoma runner Adrian Peterson accomplished it in 2004.
Watkins, though, got in trouble last May when he was stopped by police and had a bag of marijuana and two pills for which he did not have a prescription. Watkins was charged with two misdemeanors and took part in an intervention program that lets first time offenders expunge their record if they followed community service guidelines attached to their case.
Watkins has apologized to his coaches, teammates and fans for his mistake. Now, he’s ready to play.
“I was smiling at practice, ‘Ahh, we got him back,’” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said.
Boyd said Watkins kept working through the summer, even after Swinney levied the two-game penalty at the start of the team’s fall camp on Aug. 3. When Swinney sent him to the scout team to help Clemson’s starters prepare for Auburn, the sophomore took on the role with gusto and worked as hard as if he were in the lineup, Boyd said.
“Nobody’s really seen it yet,” Boyd said. “He so much more mature as a player from last year. So much more understanding of how the game works as a player. It’s going to be fun.”
Clemson’s offense has a fun time so far, even without Watkins.
The Tigers opened a season with at least 500 yards of offense for the first time ever.
DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 72 passes last year, has picked up the slack with Watkins out. Hopkins set a school record with 13 catches in the 26-19 win over Auburn, then caught three touchdowns in last week’s 52-27 victory against Ball State.
Charone Peake, a sophomore almost as highly regarded as Watkins coming in a freshman, has 11 catches in two games this year as Watkins replacement after getting just four in 2011.
And don’t forget the run game, led by the ACC’s leading rusher in Andre Ellington.
Boyd understands it’s his job to play the point, keeping the Tigers array of playmakers happy and productive.
“The key to us as an offense this year is not forcing things, kind of letting things come to us,” Boyd said. “Having a player like [Watkins] out there is something else and you want to get him the ball, but not if it means forcing it.”
Expect Watkins to see early action on offense and the return game, Swinney said. New rules – moving up the spot for kickoffs to the 35 yard line and increasing the number of touchbacks – could impact Watkins ability to return kicks. However, Swinney said Watkins might have a longer leash than others on the team to decide when to run one out of the end zone.
There are no such worries when Watkins lines up on offense. Coordinator Chad Morris spent time at Oklahoma State this season learning how Mike Gundy’s staff moved star receiver Justin Blackmon around and got him the ball from different formations.
“He will make us a lot more explosive,” Morris said.
Morris said it’s essential Watkins gets his timing down this week before the Tigers take on No. 5 Florida State in critical ACC contest on Sept. 22. No matter how good things have been, Clemson players know Watkins makes it even better.
“He brings that homerun threat every time he steps on the field,” center Dalton Freeman said. “Sammy has that SportsCenter Top 10 kind of mentality.”