NFL Draft preview: Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins displays 'passion to be great'

Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins scores his first collegiate touchdown on his first pass reception as a freshman against Troy in 2011. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro/File)

The game tape could have stood on its own. That was too easy.

What NFL personnel might not have grasped until they got their hands on Sammy Watkins this spring was the want-to fueling his uncommon football gifts. It's not enough to be good; he must be great.

"I think what sets Sammy apart is his sincerity and his tremendous work ethic," said ESPN draft analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. "Everyone I've talked to has come away very impressed with Watkins' passion to be great."

Through months of pre-NFL draft camps, workouts and interviews, Watkins has been the wire-to-wire No. 1 wide receiver prospect. He started as an intriguing top-10 possibility in January, but when evaluators observed Watkins' innate hunger, it became apparent he could be among the top five.

Watkins doesn't speak often about his most publicized mistake, though he revealed a startling reflection during his final public appearance in South Carolina before the draft.

"Great experience. Without that, I don't think I would have been in this position now," said Watkins, before signing hundreds of autographs for admiring fans at a scholarship benefit event held last weekend at Woodruff High School.

This was on Saturday, just one day shy of the 2-year anniversary when Watkins dug himself a hole. It took some time, but Watkins is a believer: he needed that valley to reach his peak.

On May 4, 2012, following his sensational freshman year at Clemson, Watkins was driving his 1999 White Cadillac when he and a friend on the Tigers' soccer team were pulled over by university police. Both freshmen were booked for marijuana possession and released.

Jaylen Watkins, then a freshman cornerback at Florida, read the wave of reports making the Internet rounds. He reached out immediately to his half-brother, but there wasn't much serious cause for concern.

"I know my brother. I know he's better than that," said Jaylen Watkins, a mid-round prospect this year who only shared a football field with Sammy once in their lives, as Pop Warner quarterbacks at age 12. "He's been good ever since."

Sammy Watkins served a team-mandated two-game suspension to start 2012, a tumultuous year for the 2011 All-American. Starting with the Tigers' 70-33 blowout loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, then touching bottom with the drug charge, he never rebounded during an illness-and-injury-marred second college season.

"He told me that (arrest) was the best thing that happened to him," said Watkins' agent, Tory Dandy. "To be able to realize little kids are looking up to him, adults are looking up to him, and feeling like he let a lot of people down."

It's not like Watkins adopted a new personality on or off the field; he merely needed to gain some perspective.

"I honestly don't believe much has changed, because he was already a good person," Jaylen Watkins said. "I just think he made smarter decisions, about people he hangs around and things like that."

He realized his fitness wasn't where it should have been - even his coaches called him out last summer. So Watkins rededicated himself, vastly improving his conditioning to help launch another All-American campaign last fall with a school-record 1,464 yards, more than doubling his 2012 receiving total.

Would Watkins have followed the same path without that May 2012 misstep? Hard to say, but it didn't hurt in the end.

"Just made me straighten up and realize how much you've got to lose. It helped me grow up over the years," Watkins said. "It's why I'm doing these charity events, and it's why I'm a top-five, top-10 prospect in the draft. That's why."

For six weeks preparing for the NFL Combine in late February, Bruce Ellington, Victor Hampton and Kelcy Quarles wouldn't have been blamed for being cliquish as South Carolina teammates the past three years.

Yet it was their college rival Watkins who set the tone for the group.

"Anytime you've got a potential top-five pick, people want to see how you are going to lead," said Dandy, who represents all four players. "When Sammy got to Tampa, he jumped right in. He definitely was a leader out there."

The old cliche about being first-to-show, last-to-leave? Yeah, that was Watkins, as Ellington recalled.

"He likes to work," said Ellington, Watkins' wideout counterpart. "While we were training, when everybody left, me and him would stay out there and continue to get better. That's what you want as a guy who has his talent; you don't want a guy who's going to be stagnant.

"That's what sets him apart. He continues to try to get better at all aspects of being a wide receiver."

The speed, the sick hops, the sticky hands and the snarl set apart Watkins as well. Sure, he's a burner (4.43 40-yard-dash at the Combine) and hauls in footballs few others on the planet can, like a few of his Orange Bowl-record 16 grabs against Ohio State displayed.

What won over NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock (a self-admitted downer on selecting receivers too high) is Watkins' mean streak.

"He's got a little attitude about him," Mayock said. "You can see him getting mad during games and going after corners and safeties and linebackers. He wants to be the best player there is.

"When you combine that with his physical ability, I think that's awesome."

Said Tajh Boyd, Watkins' college quarterback: "The biggest thing Sammy offers is his work ethic. He's probably the most complete receiver (in the draft.) He's going to be a special asset to whatever team grabs him."

Following the NFL Combine, Watkins had individual workouts and interviews with four teams, all owning top-10 selections. St. Louis (No. 2), Jacksonville (No. 3), Buffalo (No. 9) and Detroit (No. 10). Cleveland (No. 4) and Tampa Bay (No. 7) are also in play.

Should he go in the top three, Watkins would become the highest draft selection in Clemson football history.

"I've shown I can play X, Y and Z. I can do just about anything on the field," Watkins said. "So I've been chilling and enjoying this whole process."

At that moment, Watkins went back to meeting and greeting fans at the scholarship event, soaking in the positive feedback and well wishes. Two days later, Watkins would sign an endorsement deal with adidas as the apparel company's biggest name in this draft class.

It's a much brighter outlook, dominating one isolated misstep seeming far longer than two years ago.

"He's in the spotlight every second of his life now. The small things you do, they're scrutinized," Jaylen Watkins said.

"So that definitely made him realize how important he was to the Clemson program, and to his brand in general of being Sammy Watkins."