Two years after car wreck, Clemson’s Watkins making quiet comeback

Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (94) returns an interception for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 41-10 victory over Appalachian State on Saturday. Gwinn Davis/For The Post and Courier

To say it’s been a long journey Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins has traveled to recapture normalcy isn’t too far off base.

Monday will mark the two-year anniversary of a fatal car accident that killed Watkins’ cousin Dache Gossett, who was driving, and trapped Watkins in the vehicle for an hour. The wreck, on Sept. 21, 2013, occurred two days after Clemson’s Thursday night game at N.C. State, and players had been given the weekend off.

Two weeks earlier, Watkins played in Clemson’s 2013 season-opening win over Georgia. Suddenly, his sophomore season was over. Watkins, who suffered blood clots in both legs from the accident, was granted a medical redshirt while he recovered.

Watkins returned in 2014, as a reserve, logging 135 snaps and making 13 tackles. His low playing time was simply due to a clogged depth chart, since defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson were seniors and D.J. Reader was a third-year veteran.

“I know we had a lot of seniors and great leadership leave,” Watkins said, “but we wanted to prove to everybody that we can hold our side up.”

Reader, Watkins’ roommate, abruptly left the team late in fall camp tending to personal issues. That left Watkins to become the leader in a room of inexperienced returners (Scott Pagano, Roderick Byers) and untested freshmen (Jabril Robinson, Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins.)

“I understand where he’s coming from, losing a close friend like that,” junior defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “It took him a while, but once he got back to his groove, he’s back to the old Carlos, but better and faster Carlos than he was when he got here.”

Watkins has performed as expected so far this season, logging seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He also has a touchdown after his 15-yard pick-six Saturday against Appalachian State, which fueled the No. 11 Tigers to a 41-10 rout.

The touchdown, Watkins’ first since he was a tight end in high school, happened on Sept. 12, 2015 — the day Gossett would have turned 23 years old.

“I would say it’s been a long time coming,” Watkins said after the game. “It was a tragic thing, but God stayed close by my side. He helped me get through it. It’s great to be back on the field again, getting a lot of reps.”

Even though Watkins was a regular reserve, albeit little-used, last season, his coaches admit he wasn’t quite the same, physically or emotionally.

“I didn’t really see it last year, to be honest with you. I saw a guy still trying to figure it out and work his way back, regain his confidence,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “For me, it was spring ball when I started to see the light was back on for him. Part of it is Grady, DeShawn and Josh, all of a sudden, they’re not here, and he’s being challenged to be the guy. You rise up or you get passed by.”

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables didn’t see a change in spring ball.

“During fall camp, this year,” Venables said. “I think he had a pretty good summer, and then I think he had more urgency when we started up fall camp.

“I think he’s got better football in front of him. I think he’s capable of more, and I hope we find that. If he does, he’ll be awfully good. How bad does he want it? Hopefully he’ll keep demanding the most out of himself.”