There were two things on Deandre Hopkins’ list of things to do when he came home this past weekend. First, go see the new Allen Reeves Football Complex and secondly, while he is there, go see Clemson’s new national championship trophy.
Though he left the Clemson program following the 2012 season to begin his NFL career, Hopkins, like all of Dabo Swinney’s players in his 89 career wins, played a big role in what happened this past January in Tampa, Fla.
Before anyone really knew who Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Vic Beasley or Deshaun Watson was, there was Deandre Hopkins, Swinney’s first superstar player during an era that has seen the Tigers land one big-time recruit after another.
As a true freshman, the local talent from nearby Daniel High School had a breakout season in 2010. Though he did not become a starter until the halfway point of his freshman campaign, Hopkins set a freshman record with 52 receptions for 637 yards and four touchdowns. All three led the Clemson team in 2010.
In 2011, he teamed up with Boyd and Watkins to make for the ACC’s best passing game as the Tigers’ won the program’s first ACC Championship in 20 years. By the end of the 2012 season, Clemson became a force in college football and began the process of getting rid of the word no one in the program likes to hear.
“I think the LSU game definitely took our program over the hump of ‘Clemsoning.’ I think that definitely started a trend and gave those guys a backbone,” Hopkins said this past weekend as he teamed with his mom, Sabrina Greenlee, and with former Daniel High School and Clemson stars Jarvis Jenkins (Kansas City Chiefs), DeShawn Williams (Cincinnati Bengals) and Shaq Lawson (Buffalo Bills) for the fourth annual Back to School Book Bag Giveaway at Dawson Field in Clemson.
Of course it was Hopkins’ sliding 26-yard gain on a play known by Clemson fans as “4th-and-16” that helped lift the Tigers to that dramatic 25-24 come-from-behind victory over LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
After being sacked on third down, Clemson faced a fourth down-and-16 from its own 14-yard line. It appeared LSU had Clemson right where it wanted them, but so did Boyd. Clemson ran a switch play with two seams, with the receivers crossing. When Boyd walked up to the line, he saw the coverage and noticed someone had the inside guy, which was Hopkins.
Hopkins easily got past the inside defender and despite heavy pressure from a blitzing LSU defense, Boyd hung in and delivered a pass down the seam where Hopkins went down a made a sliding catch at the 40-yard line.
“Nuk kind of squirted by one high and I really did not know he was going to get on top of him like that so I kind of released it a little bit earlier, but again, being the kind of receiver he is, he always finds the ball in the air,” Boyd said after the game. “It was just a ridiculous play. I could not really see it because some of these guys are 6-5 and 6-6, so just hearing the Clemson crowd was a great feeling and a great sound.”
Boyd and Hopkins connected again on two more passes on the drive for 20 more yards, and drew a pass interference penalty on another, to help set up Chandler Catanzaro’s 37-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
After trailing 24-13 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Tigers came all the way back to get over the hump. Like Hopkins said, it was the win that gave the program a backbone. It proved to them and the program that Clemson can win big games no matter what the circumstances.
Four years later, while sitting in a Houston restaurant with a couple of his Texan teammates, who just happened to be former Alabama players, Hopkins watched as the 2016 Tigers showed that same kind of backbone in rallying from a 24-14 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to beat the Crimson Tide on a Watson to Hunter Renfrow two-yard touchdown pass with one-second to play.
Clemson had just won its first national championship in 35 years so Hopkins just sat back and smiled, and thought about how his “4th-and-16” catch against LSU four years earlier led to that moment. He couldn’t wait to go see the trophy.
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