CLEMSON - Battered, bruised, and above all else, blessed.
"After sitting out pretty much a whole year," Carlos Watkins said, "it feels real good to be back out there with my teammates grinding again."
Watkins cherishes life, and football, far deeper than the last time he was battling his way into Clemson's starting lineup for the opener against Georgia a year ago. The 6-3, 295-pound Watkins out of Mooresboro, N.C., accomplished that in 2013, recording 11 tackles in the Tigers' first three games of his sophomore year.
With the third weekend of September off following a Thursday night game at N.C. State in Raleigh, Watkins went to spend a few days in western North Carolina. As he always did when he got home, he called his boyhood friend Dache Gossett.
"He was like a big brother," Watkins said Tuesday in his first media interview since last September. "When I go home, that's the first person I hit up. We were real tight."
Gossett, Watkins and Watkins' cousin, fellow Clemson defensive end Dane Rogers, were in Gossett's Dodge Durango en route to a cookout that rainy, slippery Saturday evening.
The car hydroplaned and struck a telephone pole, ending Gossett's life at age 21. Watkins and Rogers were injured and missed the remainder of the season. Local police ruled out drugs, alcohol and speeding as factors in the accident.
Watkins' head and arms hit the window. He said he lost consciousness for about a minute. When he woke, he was unable to pry himself out of the vehicle, with the telephone pole crushing his legs for two hours until paramedics cut him loose.
"I felt my toes and everything, so I didn't really think I was paralyzed," Watkins said. "I was just in shock, the adrenaline was pumping."
He spent three days in a nearby hospital recovering from hematomas (or internal bleeding) in both legs.
"My left leg wouldn't wake up. It was asleep. So I had to drag it," Watkins said. "They gave me a walker. I had a physical therapist come by to try to get my foot straight."
After returning to campus, Watkins underwent multiple procedures to drain the blood from his badly bruised legs. He began intensive rehabilitation to regain the strength to his body, and his natural confidence still wasn't totally recouped through spring practices.
Nearly 11 months after the wreck, Watkins proclaimed himself 100 percent. Besides some visible scars on his arms from the broken glass, Watkins is finally healthy and ready to roll back into action.
"He's back to Carlos. He looks like he looked this time last year," head coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. "The wreck really affected him, mentally and physically, and it took us a while to get him back. But he looks great. Had a great summer. He looks very, very good. Good to see him."
Watkins was granted a medical redshirt, meaning he may start his sophomore year from scratch. In mid-July before fall camp practices opened, Brooks was cautiously optimistic about his role returning to the mix alongside DeShawn Williams, D.J. Reader and Josh Watson.
"I really feel like he will jump right back in that mix to challenge to start," defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks said.
"I told him in a one-on-one evaluation, you're not quite back. That's where we've got to challenge him to get back. This is real-world. But Carlos will have the same opportunity to be the three-technique (tackle) as anyone else."
Overcoming those mental and physical scars are tough enough, but Watkins feels fueled by honoring his late friend Gossett, a Clemson fan.
"You really don't know how much you miss it until it's gone," Watkins said. "Sitting out watching my boys have fun out there during the season was tough. But I knew my time would come again. It's a blessing to be back this year."
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