MIAMI (AP) — When Sammy Watkins first arrived on Clemson’s campus last summer and reported for a workout with other incoming freshman receivers, quarterback Tajh Boyd sent him out for a pass.
“I told him to run a post route, and I threw it and thought I overthrew him,” Boyd said. “But his speed was so ridiculous. I was like, ‘It doesn’t get any better than that.’”
That completion offered a hint of things to come in the ensuing months. Watkins set a school record with 1,153 yards receiving, was chosen a first-team All-American and helped the Tigers earn their first major bowl berth in 30 years.
Clemson (10-3) will face West Virginia (9-3) in a chilly Orange Bowl tonight, and Watkins is the player who most concerns the Mountaineers.
“Clemson’s offense runs through Sammy,” defensive back Eain Smith said. “You eliminate Sammy’s big plays, you eliminate their offense.”
Well, not entirely. Boyd set school records for yards passing, passing touchdowns and total offense. First-team All-American Dwayne Allen won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Andre Ellington has rushed for 1,062 yards and 10 scores.
But everyone agrees the 18-year-old Watkins was the primary catalyst for a team that scored at least 35 points eight times. His first touchdown came 26 seconds into the season, and he finished the year with 12 scores, 77 receptions, 229 yards rushing and a kickoff return average of 26.3.
He became only the third true freshman to be selected a first-team All-American, joining Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson.
“Somebody had better check his birth certificate,” Allen said, “because there’s no way this kid is 18.”
The Tigers plan a feature role for Watkins in what should be another high-scoring bowl game. The forecast calls for temperatures in the 50s at kickoff, but Clemson and West Virginia still are likely to heat up the scoreboard, because both teams are potent on offense and suspect on defense.
The Mountaineers’ Geno Smith has thrown for 3,978 yards this season. His inviting targets include Stedman Bailey, who set a school record with 1,197 yards receiving, and third-team All-American Tavon Austin, who set another school record with 89 receptions and ranked No. 2 nationally in all-purpose yards per game.
Both teams will have plenty of support from friends and family, because both recruit heavily in Florida. Watkins grew up across Alligator Alley in Fort Myers and will be matched against a former high school teammate, defensive back Brodrick Jenkins.
Watkins crossed paths with Jenkins back home over the holidays.
“The first thing he said to me is, ‘You better get ready,’” Jenkins said. “I said, ‘Bring it.’”
The older Jenkins played both receiver and defensive back in high school and served as a sort of big brother to Watkins.
“I wanted to be like him,” Watkins said. “Coach always talked about him, and I followed him. But in high school I even got better than him. Actually I got way better than him at my position.”
Jenkins doesn’t dispute it: “I knew he was going to be special.”
Watkins decided in 10th grade he wanted to attend Clemson. Once he arrived, he made an impact the first time a pass came his way, taking it 33 yards for a touchdown.
He was a starter by the third game against defending national champion Auburn. He had 10 catches for 155 yards, rushed for 44 yards and scored twice to help Clemson pull off an upset.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a big part of the team,’” Watkins said. “I need to produce every game, instead of just being a typical freshman. I’m actually one of those freshmen that’s on the stage now.”
The Tigers keep him busy. He has 136 touches this season.
“They do really a great job of getting him the football in a bunch of different ways,” West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. “Obviously they’re going to throw him the ball, but he’ll get it as a running back, and they’re going to screen him. They’ll throw the ball down the field, and he goes up and gets it. But his speed and athleticism are what probably separates him.”
The Mountaineers have given up more than 30 points five times this season. But while they’ve struggled to stop the run, they ranked 15th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and their unusual 3-3 stack scheme could confuse Clemson.
Along with Smith and Jenkins, the secondary includes All-Big East cornerback Keith Tandy, who has 12 career interceptions. All will be intent on containing Watkins.
“If we push him around a little bit, I think he’ll slow down,” Smith said. “He’s still a freshman. He makes freshman mistakes. And we plan on making sure we put him in his place.”