Sammy Watkins' sensational performance in the 2014 Orange Bowl wasn't just a case of the speedy Clemson wide receiver taking advantage of injuries in the Ohio State secondary.
The motivation behind the junior's BCS-record 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns might have said as much about the two-time All-American's pride in his game and dedication to his teammates as it did about his talent.
Jeff Scott, Clemson's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, said Watkins was so determined to end his career with a flourish that he turned in his best month of practice in three years.
"Sometimes you have top players like that who are distracted because they're dealing with agents and the upcoming draft, trying to play but not get hurt. Sammy was the exact opposite," Scott said in a telephone interview last week. "He had great focus. He wanted to go out on top and lead this team to a win, but also he wanted that to be his best game on a huge stage and I believe it was."
Watkins wasn't just thinking about himself, Scott said, but about his close friend, quarterback Tajh Boyd.
"To know that was their last game together on a national stage, they wanted to make that their best final product," Scott said. Boyd threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 127 yards and another touchdown.
There was also a little bit of redemption involved as Clemson defeated Ohio State 40-35. Watkins ended his freshman year with an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl and Scott said the Tigers wanted to "rewrite the script."
Watkins, 6-0 3/4 and 211 pounds, also showcased his versatility as the Buckeyes' coverage took away the deep routes.
"I think Sammy caught eight quick screen balls and was able to do what he does best, which is run after the catch," Scott said.
Watkins' 4.43 speed, soft hands and big-play ability could prompt the Browns to use the No. 4 overall pick on him in today's first round of the NFL Draft. The idea of pairing Watkins with receiver Josh Gordon drew a "wow" and a "ginormous" from Browns General Manager Ray Farmer last week.
Even NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock believes Watkins deserves to be a high pick.
"I'm not usually a big proponent of top-10 wide receivers, but this kid runs fast, he catches the football, he's explosive and my favorite thing about him, he has a chip on his shoulder," Mayock said in February. "He has more toughness than most wide receivers. I think he's a franchise wide receiver."
A native of Fort Myers, Fla., Watkins has been a star since he arrived at Clemson. He became the fourth first-year freshman in NCAA history to earn first team All-America honors from the Associated Press, joining Georgia's Herschel Walker, San Diego State's Marshall Faulk and Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson.
Scott said the Clemson coaches knew what was in store after Watkins' first practice.
"Sammy had the rare combination of unbelievable speed and acceleration off the line of scrimmage and also great hands," Scott said. "He attacked the ball every time it was thrown. He was playing at a different speed than everybody else and that's really rare for a true freshman.
"We thought by Game 3 or 4 he would be a starter. He was the starter by the end of that practice. It was very obvious he was a special and rare type of talent."
In his fourth game against Florida State, Watkins proved he had a good football mind as well. Midway through the second quarter, Watkins told Scott and offensive coordinator Chad Morris that in third-and-medium situations the Seminoles were playing press coverage and he could beat his man on the slant and go. Morris told Watkins he'd call it the next time the situation arose.
Watkins got his chance on third-and-5 during a crucial drive and turned it into a 62-yard touchdown in a 35-30 Clemson victory.
"That showed the football knowledge Sammy had, but also the trust the coaches had in him," Scott said. "He was a solid student in high school, but not an honor roll student. It really surprised us how good his football knowledge was. A lot of things he did naturally are the things you try to coach. The majority of the time those fundamentals and knowledge do not come natural. For Sammy it was very natural from Day One."
Watkins finished his career with 23 Clemson records, including career receptions (240), receiving yards (3,391) and touchdowns (27), the latter tied with DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2013.
But Watkins knows he has much to learn.
"Route-running, that's what I've got to improve in to become a dominant player in the NFL and that's where I've been putting my focus at all through my training," Watkins said at the NFL Combine. "I try to be physical getting off press, blocking down the field. To be that dominant receiver I need to have that total package."
When it comes to Watkins' routes, Scott said, "One of the downsides of being so fast and having such great acceleration, sometimes it's harder to stop. His break points are something he's always worked on and he's definitely improved from his freshman year to this year."
Scott can't wait to see Watkins' NFL debut. At Clemson, in what was also his first visit to the stadium known as Death Valley, he scored a 33-yard touchdown on the first pass thrown to him. Watkins' coaches at South Fort Myers High School told Scott that Watkins' first touch there was a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"We've been teasing him, 'Next year on your first touch, you've got to get in the end zone so you can have the hat trick,''' Scott said.
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