By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was not joking earlier this week when he said his wide receivers were on the ground more in last year’s Florida State game than the football was, “and it has to start on the ground every play.”
It was not a joke because Morris witnessed it firsthand when Florida State defensive back Lamarcus Joyner physically threw his star wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, into the Clemson bench at one point.
“They physically whipped us at the wide receiver position,” Morris said. “They embarrassed us.”
The third-ranked Tigers hope to redeem themselves on Saturday when No. 5 Florida State visits Death Valley. Morris has made it a point of emphasis since last year’s game to remind his wide receivers how embarrassing it was and he challenged them in both the spring and the summer to become tougher.
“We did not make as many plays as we should have last year and we did not get off the press very well,” said Watkins, who was held to 24 yards on six catches. “During the spring and the fall (camp), we worked really hard with press coverage and we have to work this week in doing the same things.”
Whatever Morris has been doing, or has said, appears to be working. Watkins, Adam Humphries and Martavis Bryant have all improved in getting off the line of scrimmage and in their running blocking. It was Watkins and Humphries blocks that sprung D.J. Howard on a 74-yard screen pass against Wake Forest, while twice Watkins has broken through obvious pass interference penalties to haul in long touchdown receptions. He did that against Wake Forest and Boston College.
The junior, who had seven catches for 141 yards and two scores against the Seminoles two years ago, even lowered his shoulder and ran over a Georgia safety on his way to a 77-yard touchdown in the season opener.
“We totally accept this challenge this week,” Watkins said. “We know they’re going to be chances for a lot of big plays out there, and there are a lot of key matchups we have to win in order to win this game. I think this game is really on the receivers because Tajh (Boyd) is going to have enough time to throw the ball.
“Their defensive line is pretty good, but they don’t have guys like Vic Beasley. We just have to accept the challenge and go out there and make plays. It’s really about our wide receivers going against their secondary.”
And what a good matchup it is. The Seminoles (5-0, 3-0 ACC) are not exactly chopped liver in the secondary. Led by Joyner, the ‘Noles rank second nationally in passing defense, while opponents are completing just 53.5 percent of their passes. They have only allowed six touchdown passes in five games.
To counter, the Tigers (6-0, 4-0) lead the conference in passing yards and have thrown a league-high 19 touchdown passes, including to 11 different receivers.
“We didn’t do a good job – we made a lot of big plays on them – but we did not do a good job last year,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We had 500‑something yards on them, but we gave up a ton to them, and we just couldn’t slow them down.
“We did some good things, but I thought as the game wore on, physically they won the match‑up. We’ve got to do better, and we’re very capable of doing better. Sammy, it was kind of his first game back. I think he played about a half of one game and then we go down there and he wasn’t quite into the speed of the game that night, and they did a good job with him.”
Watkins is excited about the matchup with Joyner and the secondary. Two years ago as a freshman, the Fort Myers, Fla., native blew past the FSU secondary. Last year the ‘Noles came out on top. Now comes the tiebreaker.
“They’re great. They’ve got great players on that side of the ball,” Swinney said. “Our guys got to do what they do. They work technique, releases and route running. That’s what we do all year. It’s not just, okay, this week let’s work on these things. It’s something we do every single day all year long. Now you’ve got to go perform on game day.”
At the ACC Football Kickoff this past July, Joyner all but challenged Watkins and the Clemson receiving corps, which Watkins responded by saying, “they like to talk a lot of trash.”
But so does Watkins, who is ready to do a little chewing of his own after the way he played in last year’s game.
“The whole team has to go out there and accept their challenge,” he said. “They are going to press coverage. They are going to press the whole game. At the end of the day, we have to be able to make plays.
“At the end of the day, it’s our wide receivers against their secondary.”