Watkins blocks out the questions about his NFL future

NEXT GAME

Who: The Citadel (4-6, 4-4 Southern) at No. 8 Clemson (9-1, 7-1 ACC)

When: Nov. 23, 12 p.m.

Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson

TV: ESPN3.com

Line: Clemson by 40

by aaron brenner

abrenner@postandcourier.com

A hoodie, sweatpants, flip-flops, maybe a baseball hat capping those unmistakable dreads if he feels like it. Sammy Watkins’ wardrobe is not complicated.

More casual than chic, more laid-back than look-at-me, Watkins offered a slight smile and polite chuckle when a reporter asked Tuesday if the 2011 freshman All-American had any diva in him, a la the Terrell Owenses and Dez Bryants of the wide receiver world.

“Not at all,” Watkins said. “If I was a diva, I’d be dressed up every day. I go to class like this every day: flip-flops, and incognito with my hat on my head.

“There’s no diva in this team. We just come out and play football. That’s what we’ve been coached on.”

On a number of occasions, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has blessed Watkins with a particular assessment blending his abilities and demeanor.

“One of the most low-maintenance superstars,” Swinney said, “I’ve ever dealt with.”

Watkins appreciates the compliment.

“I don’t say too much. I practice hard every day, go out there and have fun with it,” Watkins said. “I’m a happy guy. It shows on the field in practice, getting everybody riled up to compete. I don’t talk about what I’ve done; it’s in the record books. I just have a blue-collar work ethic. Same thing in the game; just have fun and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Watkins endured a brutal sophomore slump after bursting onto the scene his first year at Clemson, going from 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011 to 708 and three last fall. Sitting out the first two games of 2012 due to an offseason drug charge, he never regained his rhythm.

To contrast how well Watkins has bounced back, he’s exceeded the 2012 totals with 731 yards and seven touchdowns … in just his last six games.

He’s eighth in the country with 1,086 yards on the year, and his consistency has been striking: Watkins has seven different games with 100 yards, and other than a walkover against S.C. State when the starters played sparingly, none with fewer than four catches or 68 yards.

“Last year, I wasn’t a practice person. I lagged, I loafed, caught the ball and stopped,” Watkins self-evaluated. “Now this year, I’m finishing catches and practicing harder, finishing blocks. Those are things that carry over to the game.”

Watkins does run his mouth when the time is right. He readily admits his penchant for trash-talking teammates in practice during the week and opponents on Saturday.

“I take pride in coming to the season and dominating every team,” Watkins said. “Putting my face back on Clemson and letting everybody know I can be that same guy from my freshman year. I came this summer to work probably the hardest I’ve ever worked, and it’s showing out on the field.”

It’s also showing professional scouts what type of talent could be available in next spring’s NFL draft. The consensus is he’s a projected first-rounder, which is why it’s highly likely Watkins will also play his final home game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday along with the senior class should he leave after this junior season.

Swinney clarified the Tigers won’t make special arrangements for Watkins to be recognized Saturday. To him, Senior Day’s about acknowledging the student as well as the athlete completing a commitment to Clemson, and Watkins isn’t on track to graduate in his third year.

“We don’t honor juniors. I think there’s something special being a senior here,” Swinney said. “But who knows? He’s not told me he’s leaving. Certainly he’s got a huge decision to make, because I think he’s the best receiver in the country. I support him in all his decisions. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Watkins isn’t tipping his hand publicly about his postseason intentions.

“We really just focus on the now, being here every day,” he said. “You hear about it on campus and things like that, but I just worry about my legacy here and keep working.”

If the end is near for Watkins at Death Valley, he’s still well within reach of setting every major receiving standard at Clemson. With 210 catches, he’s 23 away from surpassing four-year receiver Aaron Kelly’s program record and settling in as the ACC’s No. 2 all-timer in that statistic (Duke’s Connor Vernon had 283 catches.)

“He’s been a joy to coach. Just very genuine, very coachable,” Swinney said. “You can kick him in the tail, you can love on him, and he just responds. The best players are your hardest workers, and he’s definitely one of the hardest workers on this team. He sets the tempo.”

As long as it’s eight yards or longer, it’ll take one catch for Watkins to break DeAndre Hopkins’ school yardage record, which currently sits at 3,020 yards. Watkins has 24 career scores, needing four to pass Hopkins’ record. Last week, Watkins broke Hopkins’ mark with his seventh 100-yard game in a season.

“They’re great accomplishments, but at the same time, I’m a team person,” Watkins said. “I want to be 12-1, I want to go to the Orange Bowl, I want to beat South Carolina. Those are things I really care about.”