CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins has put last year behind and is ready to get back to his freshman ways.
Watkins had 57 receptions for 708 yards a year ago, statistics that would've left him the top receiver in many programs. But they were both drop-offs from his All-America debut season of 2011 when he grabbed 82 passes for 1,209 yards and 12 touchdowns — helping Clemson win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Last year Watkins was sidelined by a two-game suspension for an offseason drug arrest and missed a third contest because of illness. He played just one snap in Clemson's 25-24 victory over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl because of injury.
Watkins is using last year's missteps as fuel for this season — and others have noticed three weeks into Clemson's fall camp.
"There's really no comparison with Sammy from last year," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "He's a lot more explosive, a lot more lean. Very determined, very focused. He's had probably as good a camp as anybody we've had."
And that could mean problems for Clemson opponents this fall. The eighth-ranked Tigers face No. 5 Georgia on Aug. 31.
"For the most part, my mind's been clear," Watkins said. "Working hard and putting everything behind. I'm just working toward my goals and my team goals."
Watkins was a lean, fast 6-foot-1 freshman sensation two years ago, impressing Tigers coaches and teammates from his very first workout. That continued into the games as he helped Clemson to an 8-0 start that included wins over three straight ranked opponents in defending national champion Auburn, defending ACC champion Florida State and Virginia Tech.
Watkins finished with the second-highest catches in school history and was an easy choice for postseason honors.
That's when things took a bad turn for Watkins. He was arrested during a traffic stop in May 2012 when officers found marijuana and two pills Watkins did not have a perscription for. He was charged with two misdemeanor counts of possession. Watkins went through pretrail intervention as a first-time offender.
Watkins was picked last summer as the favorite for ACC player of the year. Yet, those hopes essentially ended when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney suspended Watkins for the first two games of the season. His struggles, though, weren't done. Two games after returning, Watkins didn't travel to Boston College because of an abdominal virus, an illness he acknowledged robbed him of conditioning and set him back several games.
The year ended as terribly as it started with Watkins on the sidelines after a hit by LSU knocked him out of the bowl game.
"It was very frustrating," he said. "I didn't understand it at first."
Watkins says he and senior quarterback Tajh Boyd worked hard this offseason to reestablish the connection they had two years earlier, one which Watkins says was damaged by his time off the field.
"Last year, me and him was off," Watkins said. "Now, we're back on the same page as far as route-running and timing."
Watkins knew he had to recover the edge he came to campus with two years ago. He also knew he'd be looked to as both a leader for Clemson's younger receivers and a prime target for each opponent this fall.
"It just made me step up and mature," Watkins said. "I just realized that I'm going to make mistakes and I'm also going to face some adversity. It just made me realize I've got to step up and be a leader because I am being watched by everybody."
It has helped having his family nearby since his mother, Nicole McMiller, moved to South Carolina from Fort Myers, Fla.
Watkins says he feels more grounded being able to see family members when he can. That's helped Watkins return to his old form this summer.
Including teammates, who say Watkins was back to his astounding self this summer.
"When you look at Sammy in practice, you're like, 'Wow, can't believe what he's doing,'" Tigers tailback Rod McDowell said. "Sometimes you have to catch yourself and say, 'Hey, you can't be so shocked at your teammate.'"
Despite Watkins so-so sophomore season, his game-changing speed and sticky hands have him considered a first-round NFL talent should he give up his senior season. That's an issue for later on, he said.
"The biggest thing I've got to do is keep evaluating myself and trying to stay humble," Watkins says, "just trying to get back to who I was as a freshman."