Replacing Hopkins won't be easy

SUNSET, S.C. – Jeff Scott knew. Everyone associated with Clemson football knew. College football players do not have lifetime contracts.

Eventually, they leave – and so, too, would DeAndre Hopkins.

This time last year, however, few expected to be grooming Hopkins' replacement so quickly.

"We don't recruit to entertain ourselves and fans, we recruit for when guys like Hopkins leave," said Clemson wide receivers coach Jeff Scott. "We knew that day was coming. I don't think last year any of us at this time would predict we'd be losing him after his junior year."

Yet that's exactly what happened following perhaps the best season in Clemson receiving history: 82 catches, 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns, first-team All-ACC honors and second-team All-America honors.

In three years, Hopkins finished first on Clemson's career list in receptions and receiving touchdowns and second in receptions. His 2012 set single-season CU records for touchdowns and receiving yards, and his 82 grabs tied Sammy Watkins' 2011 season for second-most in a season behind Aaron Kelly's 88 in 2007.

So it was no surprise that Hopkins declared for the NFL draft and was subsequently snagged with the 26th pick of the first round by the Houston Texans.

Now, as Clemson prepares for next week's opening of preseason practice, the question is this: how do the Tigers improve their receiving corps even with the gaping hole that Hopkins leaves behind?

"That's the burden we take on as recruiting coaches," Scott said. "Fans and everyone else get used to having top-tier athletes, and that's why we're always looking for the next guys to come in and break their records someday."

Hopkins' production can be replaced, but likely not by one person. Rather, Scott is counting on a cadre of veterans – some more accomplished than others – to give Tajh Boyd the targets he needs for a standout senior season.

"I feel obviously, very fortunate, that we've got four juniors that have played a lot of ball coming back," Scott said. "Is one person going to go in and have the year Nuk had? I don't think so. But do we have talented guys who are going to continue to grow and improve and get the job done better, I think so. I think Nuk had the advantage of playing three years, that consistency of playing the same position for three years, the experience is very strong. But we have some guys coming back that have that experience. Maybe not playing that particular position in the boundary, but that's why we recruit."

The most obvious candidate is Watkins, who suffered through a down sophomore season that started with a two-game suspension following a spring drug possession arrest and ended with a sprained ankle two plays into the Chick-fil-A Bowl, courtesy of a vicious Barkevious Mingo hit. In between, Watkins missed a game due to dehydration and kidney issues and never really got back on track.

The numbers that made him just the fourth-ever AP true freshman first-team All-American – 82 catches, 1,219 yards and 12 scores – slipped noticeably as a sophomore to 57 receptions for 708 yards and three touchdowns.

"I think it's something we see every year," Scott said. ‘Guys have a great freshman year, the guys that have that type of freshman year take on kind of a legendary-type status that I don't know if you can really truly go out and repeat. I think that started off. He lost a little bit of focus going through that, which is extremely hard as an 18-year-old being thrown right into that deal, and then some of it was his fault, a few of the decisions he made in the spring.

"He got sick, something he couldn't control, got back. It's like a really good baseball player who's just in a slump. Everyone knows he's a Hall of Fame baseball player, but he's just in a slump. I felt like that was how Sammy worked hard, it was hard getting out of that slump."

However, a healthy, focused Watkins was impressive in the Orange and White Game, piling up seven catches for 156 yards and two scores in just a half's worth of work.

"I believe last year, the adversity he went through is really going to help him personally," Scott said. "His focus has been outstanding this spring, this summer, everything we've heard about what's going on is that he's had the strongest summer. I feel those top-tier players like him really respond well to adversity. I expect an excellent year out of him this year."

Beyond Watkins, the burden falls to a pair of former four-star recruits in Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake. Both have shown flashes, but neither has lived up to the expectations that followed when they signed with Clemson in February 2011.

Bryant has averaged 27.7 yards per reception, but has only 19 career catches for 526 yards and six touchdowns. Peake has 29 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

And don't forget about junior Adam Humphries, who has 56 career receptions for 410 yards and one touchdown in 27 games (and five starts). Scott says Peake is "one of our hardest workers" and he expects him to "have a really good year" and "be a star."

Bryant's Clemson future was in question after he was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but he bounced back with an excellent spring and summer and is in position for a breakout junior year.

"Martavis is as talented as anyone in the country. His biggest thing has been accountability and doing what he's been asked to do, on every play," Scott said. "He's had to mature, grow up as a player and person. He's had to work his way out.

"He was suspended for the bowl game, which was a strong message to him. His reaction since being left home from the bowl game has been very positive. He's had about the best six months I can remember since he's been here and so we're encouraged by that and hope he'll continue. He led the country in yards per catch, and there's no questioning the playmaking ability he has. His question has been mental focus. You always hope as a coach you can reach those types of players. Some guys it takes longer than others to get to that place where they're able to go out and have success play-in, play-out. We're expecting Martavis to be able to do that."

Perhaps the best news of all is that Scott is not relying on one player to replace Hopkins. He has depth and multiple players able to play multiple positions, which he treasures.

"That puts you in a really good position as far as depth," he said. "You're always looking at, a guy goes down early, how does that affect the other positions, who moves over. When guys are in as a freshman or sophomore, you're really just teaching them that one position.

"Now they're moving around. It's just the knowledge of the game, and I think they've got a really good grasp of the system. It comes down to execution. Nuk had a lot of our production last year and we've got to make up those yards, touchdowns and catches with some of these other guys. The good news is, I feel like we have guys who've already made big plays and are preparing for this year."

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