CLEMSON - Being a good sport about losing two of his top players, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris playfully offered a final plea for junior wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant to give him one more year.
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"The thing I would say: coach lets the seniors ride in first class on airplanes," Morris said with a big grin in the locker room following the Tigers' 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State on Friday. "So they get a chance to ride in first class if they come back."
Quite an incentive. Problem is, Watkins and Bryant are first-class talents ready for the professional ranks.
A day after Bryant informed The Post and Courier of his intentions to declare for the draft, Watkins made it official Monday per a university release.
Later Monday, Bryant and cornerback Bashaud Breeland joined Watkins, officially foregoing their senior seasons to test the NFL draft waters.
This is the first year in Clemson history three underclassmen have left school early to play professionally, and defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony could add to that group.
Out of 19 former Tigers to leave school early for the pros, 13 logged at least five years in the NFL or are still in the league.
While Bryant will have to work his way into the later rounds, Watkins has long been considered a Grade A talent who won't have to wait long to hear his name on May 8 at the NFL draft in New York City.
"I am very thankful for the past three years at Clemson University that have enabled me to grow academically, athletically and spiritually," Watkins wrote in a statement. "After much prayerful consideration, I have decided to take the next step in pursuing my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.
"I would not have this opportunity without the support and encouragement of my family, coaches, teammates, and the best fans in college football. No matter where my next steps may lead, I will always take pride in the PAW and will forever be a part of the Clemson family."
Watkins, 20, caught 240 passes for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns in his career; all but three catches and 23 yards were on the receiving end from graduating quarterback Tajh Boyd.
He went out in style, catching 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns to earn Orange Bowl MVP honors Friday. Watkins will train in his native Florida.
A first-team freshman All-American in 2011 and first-team All-American and Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2013, Watkins leaves with 23 school records. Those include catches and yards all to himself and a tie for the touchdowns lead with former teammate DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round selection of the Houston Texans last year.
ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. writes that five teams with selections in the top 10 - the Rams (No. 2), the Jaguars (No. 3), the Raiders (No. 5), the Bills (No. 9) and the Lions (No. 10) - have wide receiver needs and could consider Watkins, the top receiver on Kiper's board.
Clemson has seven top-10 picks in its history. The most recent is running back C.J. Spiller, who went ninth to Buffalo in the 2010 draft.
Bryant (61 receptions, 1,372 yards, 13 TD) departs with Clemson's top yards-per-catch average in school history at 22.5, besting Joe Blalock's 73-year-old record of 20.3 yards per grab. He was academically suspended for the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl and held out for the first half Sept. 28 following a throat-slash gesture celebration for a touchdown Sept. 19 at N.C. State.
Bryant, a 6-5, 200-pound honorable mention all-ACC receiver, informed The Post and Courier in a text message Sunday afternoon: "I have decided to enter the draft, it's best for me and my family."
Bryant and Breeland are fathers of young children.
Breeland, a 6-0, 195-pound fourth-year junior, had a hand in 13 pass deflections and four interceptions, leading the Tigers and landing second-team all-ACC honors.
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