Watkins, WRs will be challenged

CLEMSON – Near the 25-yard line on the north sideline of Memorial Stadium recently, a moment unfolded which illustrated how far Clemson's wide receiver corps has come in a year.

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd fired off what looked like a routine screen pass to tailback D.J. Howard.

Near the 25, wideouts Sammy Watkins and Adam Humphries pressed down in picture-perfect blocks, blowing their Wake Forest defenders onto the sidelines. Given a crease, Howard did the rest, scooting for a 75-yard touchdown and a highlight of Clemson's 56-7 win.

Would such a play have happened a year ago?

Maybe. Or maybe not, if you ask Watkins.

"I think this wide receiver group, we came a long way with being physical," he said. "Last year, me, DeAndre (Hopkins), Jaron Brown, we wasn't physical. I think the coaches really approached this season with us being complete players, and we are being complete players since we've been playing this year. We're making downfield blocks, deep-ball plays and stepping up with offense."

Entering Saturday's top-5 showdown with Florida State, physicality is a huge subplot. The Tigers' wideout simply weren't tough enough in last fall's 49-37 loss in Tallahassee, with offensive coordinator Chad Morris declaring this week that he was "embarrassed" by it.

To beat the Seminoles' expected press coverage and succeed offensively, Watkins knows that needs to change this week.

"You've got to be physical in these kind of games," he said. "I think we accept the challenge as receivers, being physical down the field and blocking."

Last fall, Watkins – battling through illness – was pushed around by Florida State's defensive backs.

He caught six passes for only 24 yards and found himself consistently knocked to the turf. It was his first full game of the season following a season-opening two-game drug suspension and playing a half in a blowout of Furman, and he said he and Boyd didn't have the right communication.

"They did a good job putting their hands on me and being physical with me and I don't think I was prepared," he said.

Watkins wouldn't go so far as to say his teammates were embarrassed, but admitted FSU "won that matchup."

"We didn't make as many plays," he said. "They eliminated the big plays, a lot of us weren't getting off the ball very well. We were looking for flags, weren't playing through plays."

This offseason, Watkins said blocking and physicality was a singular focus.

"I didn't even care about catching the ball this spring," he said. "I focused on blocking and being physical, and safeties, linebackers, taking that hit, doing that extra thing to make Hot Rod (McDowell) break a long run. I accepted the challenge, the whole wide receiver corps did. We'll be prepared for this game."

Personally, Watkins feels he is far better prepared for a physical challenge this time around.

"Most definitely," he said. "I'm bigger, stronger, faster, smarter. I accept the challenge that they're pressing us the whole game in man coverage, one-on-one. I think everyone in our wide receiver group has grown from being that prima donna and just wanting to catch the ball, we took the challenge from the coaches saying we were soft. I think we're elite players and receivers, not just playmakers."

This time around, Watkins and his fellow wideouts accept the press challenge – with vigor. In their eyes, it gives Clemson more chances for game-changing big plays.

"Tajh can run the ball, can pass the ball and we can go downfield and take our shots that we've been limited with previously," he said. "Tajh will do a great job throwing the ball. He'll have enough time to sit back in the pocket and release the ball. From a wide receiver's point of view, we've got to just be physical, come off the line, make plays down the field and block."

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