Proving ground

Proving ground

Football

Proving ground

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By William Qualkinbush.

By William Qualkinbush

Sammy Watkins proved everything in 2011. He was a freshman phenom on the tip of every tongue that spoke about college football’s future.

Then he was arrested, suspended, injured, and forgotten—at least for a while—in the shadows of a teammate pursuing a professional career.

Now the junior from Florida has a prime chance to re-emerge into the national spotlight with a solid performance against Georgia on Saturday night. The stakes are not lost on him or his teammates.

“A lot of teams are going to be after us after we had that great win against LSU,” Watkins said. “We just have to prepare right and listen to the coaches.”

What he could have said was that a lot of teams are going to be after him this season. Watkins’ rise to stardom was meteoric, and his crash back to earth was humbling. Now he just wants to play football after issues—some beyond his control, some well within it—derailed his sophomore campaign.

Watkins had a fine season in 2012, just not the caliber of year most expected. Now with DeAndre Hopkins—the primary benefactor of Watkins’ slip in productivity—gone to the NFL, Watkins is the unquestioned alpha male among skill players in Clemson’s offense.

There are two pieces of bad news for Tiger opponents related to Watkins’ development. The first one is that he says he is actually better able to move around on the field than he was when healthy as a freshman.

“I’m probably around the same speed, but I think I’m stronger and smarter,” Watkins said. “That makes me play a lot faster.”

The second is that he has rekindled his one-on-one relationship with quarterback Tajh Boyd, which both players admit suffered last season as Boyd and Hopkins developed a dynamic connection of their own.

“We’ve still got a lot to work on,” Watkins said of the quarterback-receiver relationship. “But at this time, I feel like we’re back on that page. We can actually go out there against Georgia and make a lot of plays.”

Seeing Hopkins become a rookie sensation in the NFL has also inspired Watkins to pursue greatness this season. Watkins says he texts back and forth with the current Houston Texan almost daily and takes his advice to heart because he wants what Hopkins has now for himself one day.

“Those guys in the NFL, they don’t care about catching,” Watkins said. “Everybody can catch. I’ve been doing a lot of blocking and running off the ball and not loafing off the ball.”

Watkins stops short of admitting he has much to prove, but he knows there will be a national television audience and a packed house at Memorial Stadium watching and waiting for him to showcase himself afresh and anew to the nation. They will also be comparing him to the great talent on the other sideline that Georgia will bring into Clemson for the clash of titans.

“They have a great offense, a great quarterback and wide receivers, huge running backs that can run the ball,” Watkins said. “I just think we have to go out there and play our game like we’ve been playing for the past three years and do the thing that (offensive coordinator Chad) Morris has been telling us, and everything will work out.”

On Saturday night, Clemson could be the sight of redemption. The Tigers could thrust themselves into the national spotlight for the first time in years. The Bulldogs could shake off the sting of coming mere yards short of a national title berth last season.

Then there’s Sammy Watkins, who has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in college football. Now, with his mistakes in the past and the nation watching, Watkins is looking to reach the mountaintop once again.

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