He’s back: Sammy Watkins has first breakout performance of season, setting school record in rout of Wake

Clemson's Sammy Watkins (2) runs past Wake Forest's Riley Haynes (45) and A.J. Marshall (17) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Sammy Watkins had been waiting to make an impact. He had to wait a little longer today in No. 14 Clemson’s 42-13 victory at Wake Forest.

The Clemson receiver was forced to wait until the fourth play to take the field. The sophomore was three minutes late for a meeting at the team hotel a day earlier, and as a result he missed the first three plays as punishment.

The wait continued. He had missed the first two games of the season due to suspension. He missed the Boston College game with an illness, losing 10 pound. He entered BB&T Field without a 100-yard receiving game in his eight games, not since the North Carolina game last season. He had watched fellow receiver DeAndre Hopkins set record after record this season.

The Watkins everyone remembered from 2011 had not been seen in months. The Watkins who analysts projected a sure-fire, first-round pick had gone missing, entering today averaging fewer than 10 yards per catch. The Watkins whose precocious attention to detail and rare acceleration had made him just the third first-team freshman All-American last year returned tonight for Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) against Wake (4-4, 2-4).

The sophomore recorded a single-game program 202 receiving yards. He had 177 yards in the first half alone. He helped quarterback Tajh Boyd set another single-game program record with 428 passing yards, surpassing Charlie Whitehurst.

Watkins no doubt impressed Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland who was in the press box. Watkins was simply uncovered on one 57-yard catch to set up Clemson’s first score. A quarter later, he twisted around and out ran Demon Deacon defenders en route to a 61-yard touchdown, giving Clemson a 14-0 lead. On the touchdown catch and run, most of the yardage coming after the grab as he displayed his trademark acceleration. On his third 50-yard grab, Watkins used his 4.3 speed to run by the Demon Deacons for a 50-yard reception, a ball underthrown by Boyd.

Wake had only give up two receptions of 50 or more yards.

Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was more aggressive in play calling for Watkins today.

Of the 35 passes intended for Watkins entering today, 24 had come at, near, or behind the line of scrimmage. Against Wake, Watkins was targeted on passes of 40 yards or more three times and converted two of them into 107 yards.

After being smothered by press coverage against Florida State, after being contained by Georgia Tech’s Cover 2 scheme, Watkins looked healthier and more like himself against an over-matched Wake Forest secondary and Morris aggressive attacked it.

Even when Clemson was racking 500-yard performance after 500-yard performance prior earlier this season, Morris still spoke of his unit having remaining upside. That was in part because Watkins had yet to get going and combine with DeAndre Hopkins’ record-setting pace to the season. Hopkins’ single-game mark of 197 yards was bested by Watkins today.

When Clemson has both receivers operating at full capacity it has two true No. 1 receivers – a nightmare for defenses.

Of course tonight’s performance also needs the context of Wake’s defense. The Demon Deacons entered without an individual defender ranking in the top 80, nationally, in tackles, tackles for loss or sacks. Wake entered ranked fifth in the ACC in pass defense. But the Clemson offense still executed, broke records, and its brightest star shined again.