By Will Vandervort
The junior year in college football is what is commonly known as “The contract year.”
If a player is good enough to play on Sundays, generally most will have a pretty good idea if they will be able to do so following their junior season. You don’t have to go too deep into Clemson’s past for good examples.
Last year, DeAndre Hopkins became one of the best wide receivers in the country after he hauled in 82 passes for a school-record 1,405 yards, while also catching an ACC single-season record 18 touchdowns.
Hopkins, who went to nearby Daniel High School in Central, S.C., earned All-American and All-ACC honors before being drafted in the first-round by the Houston Texans this past April.
In 2011, Dwayne Allen emerged as the best tight end in the country on his was way to being a consensus All-American after catching 50 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior. He won the coveted John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end and then entered the NFL Draft where he was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round. He was selected on the NFL’s All-Rookie team in 2012.
In 2010, DaQuan Bowers came into his own his junior year as he smashed just about every single-season defensive end record at Clemson, while becoming the most feared defensive player in college football. The Bamberg, S.C. native recorded 74 tackles, 26 for a loss and led the nation with 15.5 sacks.
Bowers finished the season as a unanimous All-American selection—the fourth in Clemson history—while becoming just the second Clemson player to win a national award. The ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year won both the Bronko Nagurski Award as College Football’s Best Defensive Player and the Ted Hendricks Award as the College Football’s Best Defensive End.
That following April, Bowers was a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is projected to start at defensive end this fall.
Before Bowers, there were others that had spectacular junior years and they did not go pro, like running back C.J. Spiller, the late Gaines Adams at defensive end, linebacker Leroy Hill, cornerback Tye Hill and the list goes on and on.
So who are the best juniors on this year’s 2013 team? One is obvious, but the other four might surprise you.
- Sammy Watkins, wide receiver: For his standards, Watkins had an average year last year. Though he played in only 10 games and missed half of another one, he still hauled in 57 passes for 708 yards and scored three touchdowns. He also rushed for another touchdown and, in all accounts, if he was anyone else it would have been considered a great season. But when you produced 14 touchdowns as a freshman and had more than 1,200 receiving yards while becoming one of the most explosive players in the country, than expectations are a little higher. After the off-the-field problems and sickness last year, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound receiver says he has rededicated himself to becoming a better player than he was as a sophomore. His move to boundary receiver should only help that—the potential is there for a lot of one-on-one match ups—while also making him a more complete wide receiver over all.
- Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle: There is an argument that Jarrett might be the best defensive player on the team. By seasons end, he was generating countless double teams and even that did not stop him. He finished the year with 49 tackles, including eight and a half for a loss. The 6-foot-1, 290-pound junior also had two sacks and 10 quarterback pressures as well. Jarrett is the front line of a defense that is loaded with talent in the interior line.
- Josh Watson, defensive tackle: Like Jarrett, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive tackle really came into his own last season, especially in the second half of the year. Watson led all defensive linemen with 54 tackles, while recording three sacks as well. He is also, not only one of the leaders on defense, but on the team. With him and Jarrett starting side-by-side, they give Clemson one of the best one-two punches in the ACC along the defensive front.
- Adam Humphries, wide receiver: A lot of people might think Martavis Bryant or Charone Peake deserve to be in this slot, but in all fairness, they have not nearly been as productive and consistent in their careers as Humphries. In his two seasons of work thus far, he’s caught 56 passes for 410 yards, while also running the football and returning punts. Next to Watkins, he is the second most productive receiver on Clemson’s roster and there is no reason to think that is going to change in 2013. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound receiver just simply works harder than most and it’s hard to keep him off the field.
- Corey Crawford, defensive end: A lot of you might think Vic Beasley needs to be on this list before Crawford, but the simple fact is Crawford is a more complete and stronger defensive end than Beasley. And if there is anyone on this list that can have a Gaines Adams or DaQuan Bowers type year, then it is Corey Crawford. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end has the skills of both Adams and Bowers combined. He is fast enough to get around tackles and get to the quarterback, but is powerful enough to take on blockers and stop running backs. Crawford’s only issue is Crawford. If he wants to, he can be one of the best defensive ends in the country and can be a guy that can takeover games. Just look at last year. I bet you are surprised to see he had 47 tackles and six tackles for loss, even though he really did not come on or “get it” until the end of the year.