WOODRUFF — Usually when Kelvin Benjamin visits upstate South Carolina, he’s sweating it out more than he’d like.
Luckily for the Carolina Panthers’ budding star wide receiver, signing autographs in the shade on a mid-April afternoon was far more forgiving than running routes in pads in August.
Benjamin was participating in a scholarship event sponsored by his agent, Tory Dandy, at Woodruff High School, not far from Wofford, where the Panthers train each fall.
“Whew, I ain’t gonna lie, it’s hot out here (during training camp,)” Benjamin said, with a hearty laugh.
The heat obviously didn’t bother the 28th overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft out of Florida State, as his rookie-year numbers were outstanding: 73 catches, 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as Cam Newton’s primary target.
Benjamin was one of three rookies to haul in 1,000 receiving yards, joining Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants (1,305 yards) and Mike Evans of Tampa Bay (1,051 yards). Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins was just short of 1,000, and Philadelphia’s Jordan Mathews and Miami’s Jarvis Landry were also above 750 yards in a marquee season for first-year receivers.
“I’m happy for all the guys that they’re having success,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin was reunited for the afternoon with another top rookie, with a chance to dish out bragging rights. Watkins, the other star receiver on hand Saturday, was on the losing end of FSU’s 51-14 romp at Clemson during an top-five showdown in 2013, launching the Seminoles ultimately to a national championship.
“That was a great atmosphere at Death Valley, man,” Benjamin said. “I think they probably got one of the loudest stadiums in college football.”
Carolina defended its NFC South crown despite a 7-8-1 regular season record, and went on to beat shorthanded Arizona at home on wild-card weekend before getting bounced at Seattle.
“The goal is to get to the Super Bowl,” Benjamin said. “Making the second round of the playoffs, that was good, but you gotta forget about the past.”
Much was made of ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden’s comment last fall, “I want to go to Clemson and coach receivers,” in response to a big night by rookie Martavis Bryant.
Throwing Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins in the mix, the trio combined for 167 receptions, 2,741 yards and 20 touchdowns for their respective teams. Bryant was the surprise of the group, not even playing the first six games of the season.
“Just FaceTimed with him the other night, he’s doing good. He’s going to continue to have the success that he’s having,” Watkins said. “That guy’s a beast. Any guy that came from Clemson, they’re going to have success in the NFL.”
There might be another Clemson product primed for Sundays; Mike Williams is entering his junior year coming off a 57-catch, 1,030-yard, six-TD season and would be eligible for the 2016 NFL draft.
“Aw man, he’s definitely excelling at his position. He’s just like me and Nuk was our junior year,” Williams said. “He’s going to go first round, he’s going to make a lot of money. He’s going to be great.”