To help get you through college football’s slow days of late June and early July -- before conference media days launch the preseason festivities -- we’re counting down the 12 most important South Carolina Gamecocks and 12 most important Clemson Tigers for 2013. One Gamecock and one Tiger every day, so you can spend part of your summer studying the players who will make a difference for your team come autumn.
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-1, 205
Hometown: Fort Myers, Fla.
Last year: 57 catches, 708 yards, three touchdowns in 10 games; set a school record with 202 yards at Wake Forest.
CLEMSON’S NO. 2 – SAMMY WATKINS, JUNIOR, WIDE RECEIVER
Hometown: Flowery Branch, Ga.
Last year: Completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,965 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Let’s let the quarterback speak for his most cherished offensive weapon: “Honestly, this has been the best summer I’ve seen him have so far. He’s been working as tirelessly as I’ve ever seen him work. And he knows how important he is to this program.” That was Tajh Boyd, on June 18, telling the guys on ESPN Radio how Sammy Watkins plans to rebound from a down season … which, of course, still reflected stats 80 percent of college receivers would chew through rope to have.Because he missed the first two games of 2012 due to suspension related to his offseason drug arrest, which let DeAndre Hopkins bust out and become the team’s top target, Watkins never felt the rhythm nor the rhyme like he did in 2011, which saw him record a ridiculous 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. (The list of AP first-team All-Americans in their true freshman year: Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson, Sammy Watkins. That’s a pretty good list.) So while that pace was pretty much unrepeatable, Watkins battled some adversity while tallying barely over half the catches and yards while falling to just three touchdowns in eight full games last year. He was knocked out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl on the second play from scrimmage when Barkevious Mingo fell on his ankle, which should only prove to fuel his fire. Hopkins covered up the blemishes last year. He’s no longer here. Sammy Watkins has to be Sammy Watkins – the freshman year version – for the Tigers to reach their dreams.
SOUTH CAROLINA’S NO. 2 - CONNOR SHAW, QUARTERBACK
The Gamecocks don’t need Shaw to put up Heisman Trophy numbers to win, though he certainly doesn’t have shabby stats in his year and a half as the starter.
He completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2011. Last season, he threw the ball more often — 20.7 attempts per game, compared to 18.8 in 2011 — and boosted his completion percentage to 67.5. He threw 17 touchdowns and seven picks. Even while throwing more, his yards per attempt went up from 7.7 in 2011 to 8.6 in 2012. He finished No. 11 nationally last season in yards per attempt — a measure of his efficiency.
Shaw is always dangerous in the open field, because of his fleet feet, and because he ran an option offense in high school. But he also dealt with shoulder and foot injuries last season that sidelined him for Week 2 against East Carolina and the regular season finale at Clemson.
Citing a quarterback’s win-loss record, as it were, to demonstrate his capability is usually foolhardy. He isn’t even on the field for essentially half the game. But there is no doubting that USC has won with Shaw as the starter. The Gamecocks are 17-3 in games he has started over the past two seasons, though you can’t credit him solely with all of those wins.
A lot of his success this season depends on whether the Gamecocks can keep opponents honest by establishing new tailback Mike Davis. Shaw’s health will also play a big part in determining how much he can help the Gamecocks in 2013.
Over the past two seasons, Shaw has been a steadying presence for an offense with bigger stars (receiver Alshon Jeffery and tailback Marcus Lattimore) that hasn’t exactly been prolific, in terms of its yardage outputs. At times, Shaw has looked spectacular. In a 34-13 home win over Clemson in 2011, he completed 14 of 20 passes for 210 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and also ran 19 times for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Now that Jeffery and Lattimore are no longer around, this is Shaw’s offense. Can he lead it to greater things?