CLEMSON — Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins says he’s regaining an All-American feeling during bowl practice, which is welcome news for the Tigers as they prepare for LSU’s elite defense on Dec. 31 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
In part because of a suspension and an illness, the sophomore’s yards (1,219 to 708), yards per catch (14.9 to 12.4) and receiving touchdowns (12 to 3) all decreased significantly from his 2011 season when he became just the third true freshman to earn first-team All-American honors, joining Adrian Peterson and Herschel Walker.
Watkins says he feels more explosive and more in sync with quarterback Tajh Boyd thus far during bowl practice. If Watkins is back to his 2011 form in the Georgia Dome, Clemson will enjoy the equivalent of adding an impact player.
“Everyone should see that old Sammy,” Watkins said.
His sophomore slump started with the two-game suspension to begin the season, stemming from his arrest on drug charges in the spring. And it just wasn’t that Watkins missed the first two games, it’s that he went nearly a month without working with the first-team offense, eroding cohesion with Boyd. When he returned from suspension, he came down with a virus that robbed him of 10 pounds and his explosiveness. DeAndre Hopkins became Boyd’s favorite target.
“I was never in the groove,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t really with the offense (early in the season). I was with the scout team, pushing those guys. I would say around the ninth, 10th game, that’s when I started actually playing and getting passes. But I wasn’t fully the old Sammy Watkins where I could, after I got the touch, I could move quickly. I didn’t have that initial reaction.”
Short-area quickness was a distinguishing trait last season for Watkins when he turned short passes into long touchdowns.
It’s Watkins’ short-area explosiveness Clemson tries to take advantage of in its offense.
According to the website Seldomusedreserve.com, 32 of Watkins’ 78 targets (41 percent) came at or behind the line of scrimmage.
“Practicing his week, I feel myself really getting back that explosion,” Watkins said. “I feel very comfortable coming into the LSU game.”
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris thinks Watkins is rounding back into elite form.
“He hasn’t had the year, the numbers, he had last season. I think that has a lot to do with that he couldn’t in the groove,” Morris said.
“I think now with 15 bowl practices, I’m excited about getting (Watkins) going.”
Morris needs Watkins and Hopkins to perform like stars as LSU has physically imposing, talented defensive backs. Clemson must win outside matchups in a game LSU figures to have advantages along the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve been watching film. They are physical big guys,” Watkins said. “They are good with their feet, good with their hands. … I accept the challenge, especially in (man coverage). I’ve been getting a lot of (double coverage).”
Double coverage has also played a role in his statistical decline. But Watkins is ready for a breakout, regardless of the coverage or opponent.
“I’ve been getting better every game,” Watkins said. “Maybe I’ll have a breakout game against LSU. We don’t know, but we’ll see.”