MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - Sammy Watkins stopped every few steps as he ambled through the tunnel underneath Sun Life Stadium, returning to Clemson's locker room in the wee hours Saturday morning.
Everybody wanted a moment of Watkins' time. A father and son snapped a quick cell phone picture with the Tigers' junior receiver. Other fans offered their congratulations, a pat on the back. His short stroll turned into a lengthy meet and greet. Watkins met each request with a smile.
If these were Watkins' final moments wearing a Clemson uniform, if the 2014 Orange Bowl MVP capitalizes on his momentum and leaves school early for the NFL Draft, they were slowly savored. Watkins had a record-shattering night in No. 12 Clemson's 40-35 win against No. 7 Ohio State, finishing with 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
"It was definitely important for this university to get a win," Watkins said. ". Tonight was just to go out there and have fun, go out with a bang and get the 11-2 in back-to-back seasons and just finish off my legacy here, and I definitely did that."
Watkins had the kind of night that makes Twitter explode, even catching the attention of Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel after one dazzling third-quarter touchdown catch. He leapt over Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant, hauling in a 30-yard pass from quarterback Tajh Boyd.
In only three quarters, Watkins set an Orange Bowl record for receiving yards, surpassing former Stanford tight end Coby Fleener's 173 in the 2011 game. He also finished with Clemson's single-game and career (240) receptions record. With the latter, Watkins passed Aaron Kelly's 232 career catches on a third-quarter screen pass.
More than the highlights, Watkins' consistency has helped bolster his legacy. He had his eighth 100-yard receiving game of the season and 15th of his career Friday. With 268 all-purpose yards, he surpassed the 5,000 mark in his career.
Watkins is only the second player in Clemson history to reach those heights. Former Tigers running back C.J. Spiller had 7,588 all-purpose yards in four years.
About the only thing Watkins didn't do well Friday night was throw. His pass to Boyd on a gimmicky two-point conversion in the fourth quarter was intercepted. Boyd was wide open, but the pass was abominably off target.
"He's done passing," Swinney said, laughing. "How wide open was that? I mean, Tajh almost tried to fair catch it. I mean, unbelievable. It's unbelievable. And the thing is, he's got a great arm. Was that the worst throw you've ever seen in your life? It didn't have to be that hard. . He could have underhanded better than he did that."
In the NFL, Watkins won't be paid to throw pass. So now he has a decision to make.
In the coming days, Watkins said he'll talk with his parents and coaches about whether to return to Clemson or leave early for the NFL. Watkins is expected to be the first receiver taken in the NFL Draft, a first-round lock.
He wouldn't reveal Friday which path he'll choose.
"We'll definitely break everything down, the scenarios," Watkins said.
"It will be a short conversation. Real short conversation if he's going to talk to me," Swinney interjected.
By the time the team plane lands, Watkins' teammates may know whether they'll see the greatest Clemson receiver of all time with a Tiger paw on his helmet next fall.
Clemson has a tradition for return flights from bowl trips. Seniors sit up front, pampered in first class. It's a simple gesture, given as a reward for departing players.
Watkins said his MVP performance Friday will have no impact on his impending decision. Truth is, it was the type of game that completes careers, fulfilling and historic. Swinney said Clemson didn't quite make it to the mountain top, but the Tigers can see it.
There's a good chance Watkins will see first class.
"There's going to be some extra seats going back," Swinney said. "So we might let old Sammy slide up there (Saturday), see how he does. See if he's ready for that."
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