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Best players in Clemson history: Wide receiver

When Deandre Hopkins set the record for the most receiving yards by a freshman in Clemson history, Sammy Watkins shattered it the following season, as well as setting the all-time single season mark.

How did Hopkins respond? He shattered Watkins’ record the very next year, while setting several more single-game, season and career marks along the way.

How did Watkins respond? He obliterated Hopkins’ single-season records, while also setting new single-game, season and career marks as well. In other words, Watkins and Hopkins became the two best wide receivers in Clemson history because they always pushed each other to be the best.

By being the best, the two former Tigers landed as first round draft picks in the NFL. Hopkins was selected 27th overall by the Houston Texans in 2013, while Watkins was taken No. 4 overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2014.

Hopkins and Watkins combined to catch 446 passes for 6,411 yards and 54 touchdowns in their Clemson careers. As teammates in 2011 and 2012, they hauled in 293 receptions for 4,310 yards and 38 touchdowns. The two helped Clemson’s offense become almost unstoppable in those two years.

Both also came up big for the Tigers on the big stage. Hopkins hauled in, what at the time was a Clemson record, 13 receptions for 191 yards and two touchdown passes in the Tigers’ 25-24 come-from-behind victory over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

One of his 13 catches that night was a 26-yard gain on a fourth-and-16 pass from quarterback Tajh Boyd that kept the game winning-drive alive.

In the 2014 Orange Bowl Classic, Watkins topped Hopkins’ bowl record and set a BCS record in the process when he snagged 16 passes for 227 yards and two scores in Clemson’s 40-35 win over Ohio State. The touchdowns covered 34 and 30 yards. The last touchdown was a leaping grab in which he reached over the Buckeye defender and took the ball. The Tigers trailed by nine points, 29-20, before Watkins’ catch.

Sammy Watkins (2011-’13): This is a no brainer, right? Watkins was unbelievable. In his three seasons, he hauled in 240 passes for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns. All three marks are Clemson records for a career. He also holds the mark for most catches and yards in a game and holds the single-season mark, too, after he brought in 101 receptions for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013. He had a Clemson record eight 100-yard receiving games in 2013. Watkins is also the first and still only player in Clemson history to earn First-Team All-American honors for three straight years.

Deandre “Nuk” Hopkins (2010-’12): Before Watkins broke all of them in 2014, Hopkins owned almost all of the receiving records at Clemson before he left after his junior season to turn pro. Like Watkins, Hopkins did all his damage in three years. He finished his career with 206 catches for 3,020 yards and 27 touchdowns. He shares the record for most touchdown receptions in a career with Watkins. His best season came in 2012 when he hauled in 82 catches for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 18 touchdowns are still a single-season record at Clemson. He earned All-American honors and was a two-time First Team All-ACC performer.

Honorable mentions:

Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams catches a touchdown pass in front of South Carolina Gamecocks defensive back Jamarcus King  last year at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Last year, Williams tallied 98 receptions (second all-time to Sammy Watkins for a season) for 1,361 yards – the third best single-season total in Clemson history. He also hauled in 11 touchdowns and averaged 13.9 yards per catch. (Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Jerry Butler (1975-’78):  Butler was an outstanding wide receiver for the Tigers in the late 1970s. He will always be remembered for his catch in the closing moments of the 1977 South Carolina game, a reception that gave the Tigers a 31-27 victory over the Gamecocks. That play is simply known as “The Catch.” Butler started every game at Clemson and caught at least one pass in every game between 1976 and 1978. Following his senior season, he was named to the All-ACC first-team as well as the AP and Sporting News First-Team All-America squads. He was also the co-winner of the Frank Howard Award with Steve Fuller. He was inducted into the Clemson Hall of Fame in 1986, named to Clemson’s Centennial team in 1996, and inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1997. Two years later, he received Clemson’s highest athletic honor by being inducted into the Ring of Honor. Butler finished his career with 2,223 yards and 11 touchdowns on 139 receptions.

Mike Williams (2013-’16): Williams might very well be the greatest receiver Clemson fans ever saw had he not injured his neck in the first quarter of the 2015 season-opener against Wofford. That play sidelined him for the entire year. However, he came back in 2016 big, stronger, faster and better than he was in 2014 when he caught 57 passes for 1,030 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged 18.1 yards per catch on his way to All-ACC honors that year. Williams came back in 2016 and was even better. He tallied 98 receptions (second all-time to Watkins for a season) for 1,361 yards – the third best single-season total in Clemson history. He also hauled in 11 touchdowns and averaged 13.9 yards per catch. The First-Team All-ACC selection was a monster to cover at 6-foot-4, 223 pounds, as he had five 100-yard games, including 202 yards against Pittsburgh when he caught 15 passes and scored one touchdown. He also had 106 yards on just six catches and one score against Syracuse—a game in which he did not play in the second half because of the score—as well as a six-catch 100-yard game against South Carolina, which all came in the first half of a blowout win. He also scored a record three touchdowns against the Gamecocks – the most by any receiver in one game in the history of the rivalry. Williams then proceeded to catch six passes for 96 yards against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and then six more for 94 more yards in the College Football Playoff Championship Game against Alabama, including one touchdown and a 24-yard gain on the game-winning drive. He finished his Clemson career with 177 catches for 2,727 yards and 21 touchdowns. He averaged 15.4 yards per catch. This past April, Williams was selected No. 7 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers.

Perry Tuttle (1978-’81): An All-American in 1981,Tuttle averaged 17 yards a reception on 52 catches during the National Championship season and scored eight touchdowns. He saved one of his greatest moments for his last game. He caught five passes for 56 yards in the 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, including a 13-yard touchdown pass from Homer Jordan in the third quarter. His ensuing celebration was captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first Clemson athlete in history to be featured on the cover of the world’s most famous sports publication. Tuttle finished his career with 150 receptions for 2,534 yards. He was inducted into Clemson’s Athletic Hall of Fame and was named to Clemson’s Centennial Team in 1996.

Rod Gardner (1997-2000): Did he push off or not? That was the big question after Gardner snagged a 50-yard reception with 10 seconds left to set up Aaron Hunts’ game-winning field goal against South Carolina in 2000. Gamecock fans, still to this day, say Gardner pushed off the USC defender to create an advantage. Clemson fans, of course, see it the other way, a big-time player making a big-time catch in crunch time. Gardner caught the winning touchdown against the Gamecocks in 1999 in addition to his 2000 catch. His 2000 catch, is simply known as “The Catch II.” Gardner was an All-American that season after he recorded 80 receptions for 1,084 yards. He also had more than 1,000 yards in 1999 and became the first Clemson receiver to hit the 1,000-yard mark in a season. He is the only Clemson receiver to record back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. Gardner finishes his career with 166 receptions for 2,498 yards.

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