Carlos Watkins was one of the nine former Clemson players to be invited to the upcoming NFL scouting combine. The nine invitations surpassed last season’s record-breaking number by one to add a new accolade to the National Champions and the winningest senior class in school history.
In Watkins’ five total years at Clemson University, the program reached new levels of success. As for the North Carolina native, he earned his college degree, he broke school records, and he was named a permanent captain of the first team to win a National Championship at Clemson in 35 years.
But for Watkins, the defensive lineman is just thankful to have been alive to experience all the success and awards. Shortly after recording his first career start in the ESPN College Gameday opener at home vs. Georgia, the sophomore was involved in a fatal car crash that took the life of one of his closest friends.
Watkins was riding around his home state with his cousin and close family friend a few days after the Thursday night victory over N.C. State when slippery roads caused the car to hydroplane. The impact of the crash took the life of a friend Watkins had considered family and left the 305 pound lineman trapped with the weight of a telephone pole severely bruising his legs. When Watkins was rescued, he realized the serious bruising and hematomas that built up would keep him out of what was looking to be a breakthrough sophomore season.
However, his accident taught him how precious life is and its opportunities are, which motivated him to get back on the field and prove all he had to offer. Watkins was granted a medical redshirt for the 2013 season, leaving him with three more seasons of eligibility and a chance to leave a mark on the Clemson football program.
“It showed me how quick things can change,” he said. “It’s always going to be with me. It was a tragic incident. I just use it as a motivation. One reason is that I’m blessed to be here and I look at it that way.”
Although he wanted to get back to playing with the teammates who kept his spirits up during a traumatic time, Watkins had to focus on getting himself healthy. In the fall camp leading up to the 2014 football season, Watkins stated that he finally felt as though he was ready to reclaim his role. That season, the redshirt sophomore worked his way back into the defensive tackle position and recorded 13 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and four quarterback pressures over a span of 11 games.
When the 2015 season came along, the coaches knew that Watkins was confident and prepared to become the go-to starter. As a redshirt junior, he started in all but one of the 15 games in the first season Clemson returned to the national title game since 1981. In 570 snaps, Watkins racked up 69 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, eight quarterback pressures and an interception. The first-team All-ACC athlete returned that interception for his first career touchdown in Clemson’s 41-10 victory over Appalachian State. That play will forever be a special memory of his college career in more ways than one. For Watkins, the touchdown is something he holds close to his heart as he tributes it to Dache “Sheeke” Gossett, who died in the accident two years before.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but when I was in the car accident, my cousin that passed away, it was his birthday that day, so it made that really special,” Watkins said when asked about his favorite memories at Clemson. “That was probably one of the finest moments I have had.”
Watkins played a huge role on one of the top defensive units in the nation. After his performance in the 2015 season, he had the opportunity to forgo his final season of eligibility to enter into the 2016 NFL Draft. However, Watkins had goals he still wanted to accomplish as a Tiger.
“It was a very good choice for me to come back,” he said.
In his final season, Watkins went off. He earned All-American and All-ACC honors while leading the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, breaking William Perry and Michal Dean Perry’s shared single-season record of sacks by a defensive tackle. He ended the season with 82 total tackles, four pass breakups, and 13 quarterback pressures, and played a vital role in Clemson becoming the national champions.
Watkins served as a rock on the defensive front, but not just because of his physical ability. After years of persevering through adversity, Watkins became a leader that helped guide a unit full of young talent to becoming one of the strengths of the championship-winning team. Despite the hardship and trauma he endured, Watkins remained motivated to succeed. His positive attitude and determined spirit made him an easy selection for a permanent team captain.
“Carlos never had a bad attitude. He came to work to get better, got himself better, got stronger, got leaner, got faster,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Carlos Watkins is one of the reasons we’re playing for this championship.”
Now, Watkins has the opportunity to take his talents to the professional level and fulfill a life-long dream he didn’t know would be possible when he was laying in a hospital bed in September of 2013. While he continues to go through the rigors of preparing for the 2017 NFL Combine, he’s maintained the same level of dedication as he portrayed throughout his entire college career which continues to draw attention to his work ethic and love for the game.
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