ATLANTA — Chad Morris traveled to Stillwater, Okla., this spring to solve a problem.
The Clemson offensive coordinator knew wunderkind receiver Sammy Watkins would no longer surprise opponents, having become just the third true freshman to earn first-team All-American honors last season. So Morris made a trip to Oklahoma State to learn how the Cowboys got the ball to star receiver Justin Blackmon so often, despite everyone in the stadium knowing Blackmon was the focal point of the offense.
But a funny thing happened this season, it wasn’t opponents that slowed Watkins, the sophomore slowed himself. Watkins was suspended for the first two games of the season. He was relegated to working with the scout team for a month, eroding cohesion with quarterbak Tajh Boyd. When he rejoined the first-team offense, an illness limited him until the middle of the season.
The big plans for Watkins in 2012 were never unveiled. Watkins essentially became a third option in the offense, seemingly forgotten at times by No. 14 Clemson (10-2). Watkins had just four touches against South Carolina. But Morris said expect that to change against No. 8 LSU (10-2) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at 7:30 p.m. Monday (ESPN).
“We are going to turn him loose,” Morris said. “We expect Sammy to be Sammy. Sammy needs to play well.”
By kickoff on Monday, Watkins will have had 15 bowl practices to rebuild cohesion with Boyd. Morris will have had 37 days to implement new ways to involve Watkins in the offense, including the lessons he learned at Oklahoma State.
“I think we were able to utilize some of (the Oklahoma State wrinkles), but it was kind of hard trying to evolve into what we really wanted to get into, because with (Watkins’) suspension and then him missing a couple games and being sick,” Morris said. “It was really difficult. And then you get into the meat of your schedule and you had to do what you were doing in making sure you were getting good at something.
“We have had an opportunity to do some things during the 15 bowl practices. We are excited about it.”
And perhaps those things include using Watkins in more places on the field.
Watkins has been limited mostly to the short passing game. According to the website seldomusedreserve.com, 41 percent of throws to Watkins have come at or behind the line of scrimmage. The average throw to Watkins has traveled just nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage, compared to 14.6 yards for DeAndre Hopkins and 13 yards for Jaron Brown.
Watkins hinted that he will be used more creatively vs. LSU.
“They are using me in a lot of packages,” Watkins said. “They are doing a lot of things differently than they did South Carolina week. We didn’t do many things during South Carolina week with me … I didn’t get too many looks. I think we just reevaluated everything. I just have to bring back the old Sammy.”
The last time Clemson was in the Georgia Dome, Watkins watched the season opener on TV back in Clemson.
This week he smiled when talking about how fast the indoor surface was playing, anxious to take off. Anxious to show what 2012 could have been and what 2013 could be.