CLEMSON — In the first half of the season, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd set single-game career best in passing yardage and a program record in career touchdown passes. The No. 16 Tigers enter the halfway point of the season ranked 10th in the nation in total offense. The offensive output has led Clemson to five wins in its first six games.
The Tigers have accomplished all this with minimal contributions from their first-team All-American of last season, receiver Sammy Watkins.
Watkins has missed three games this season — two to suspension, one to illness — but in the three games he has played, Watkins has had a limited impact from a numbers standpoint. He has only 118 receiving yards and is averaging 7.4 yards per catch. His lone touchdown came on a running play against Furman. DeAndre Hopkins has nearly seven times the receiving yardage of Watkins.
Still, the Tigers do not seem concerned with Watkins’ depressed numbers, rather Clemson is encouraged as its offense ranks among the nation’s elite without much production from the team’s most talented player.
“It’s still the same Sammy,” Boyd said. “He’s no different this year. He just has to keep getting reps because he missed a few games. We just have to keep working him.”
Part of Watkins’ slowdown is because defenses have begun trying to limit his big plays.
The strategy of playing two deep safeties against Clemson began in the second half of last year, and the strategy has been employed by both Florida State and Georgia Tech this season.
That defenses are paying more attention is evident in the numbers. In the first nine games of his career, Watkins had five 100-yard receiving games and 10 touchdowns. In his last seven games, Watkins has failed to record a 100-yard game and has one receiving touchdown.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said the Yellow Jackets were not going to allow Watkins to beat them deep.
“They weren’t going to let us get over the top with him,” Morris said. “They just weren’t.”
Even with Hopkins’ breakout season, Boyd was asked if teams have still focused their attention on Watkins.
“I think so,” Boyd said. “Teams have been doubling him, having a safety spy on him, but you have to account for (Hopkins).”
What Watkins’ depressed numbers also speak to is improved maturity from Boyd. Last season, Boyd forced the ball more to Watkins downfield the field into crowded secondaries. For instance, Watkins had a 150 yards in the loss to Georgia Tech last season, but Boyd also had three interceptions.
This season, Boyd is taking what is there. For instance, all but one of Watkins’ targets came within five yards of the line of scrimmage Saturday.
“We’re just improving, taking what is there,” Boyd said. “I think we are not forcing things as much this year; we are letting the game come to us.”
And by letting the game come to them, Clemson believes the yards will eventually come to Watkins.