Heading upfield after taking a screen pass from quarterback Tajh Boyd, Clemson's standout junior wide receiver lowered a shoulder and trucked a Maryland safety to the Byrd Stadium turf, displaying impressive physicality and drive.
"I caught (Maryland's safety) at the right time and tried to go lower," Watkins said. "I think it was coming fast. I've got to keep playing my game, being physical and everything's going to work out."
On a day when Watkins caught a Clemson single-game record 14 passes for 163 yards, it might have been the most impressive moment – one that shows how far Watkins has come in a year's time.
Following a sophomore season marked by injury, suspension, illness and inconsistency, Watkins has re-established himself as a likely first-round NFL draft pick. Tuesday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Watkins was a "top-10" pick in next April's NFL draft, adding that he'd be "surprised" if Watkins returned for his senior season.
Watkins responded by saying he hasn't focused on his future yet, but it's clear that he has become a more complete player in what could be his final season of college football.
Entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Virginia, Watkins is averaging 101.6 receiving yards per game (third in the ACC) and 7.2 receptions per game (also third in the ACC). He has 58 receptions for 813 yards and five touchdowns and is on pace for 87 receptions, 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
As a freshman, Watkins played in 13 games and had 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 scores, winning national freshman of the year honors and becoming the fourth true freshman ever to be named a first-team Associated Press All-American.
"He's having a great year," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's dialed in, focused, catching the ball well. He's hungry and wants that extra yard on plays – I think he had over 100 yards after the catch at Maryland. He's stepped up in a big way."
Most important in Watkins' transition from sophomore slump to a junior jump has been his improved physical play. Last September, Florida State's secondary pushed him around in a 49-37 loss, something he didn't want to repeat.
"That's what we've got to do as wide receivers, be physical," he said. "There are a lot of guys taking shots and banging on us all week (in practice), and I think from my point of view, I didn't play as well (last fall) being physical and blocking. I wanted to transition myself into being that physical guy, being that physical player and I think I have. Think every game, I'm getting better at being physical, blocking, trying to block guys."
It is a role Watkins says he revels in – and one that opens up the offense.
"It's a great feeling, knowing you can go out there and catch the ball, run the ball, get the screen when it's open," he said. "Just to know we can run the ball down the field and call plays from all different formations, it's great when the offense is clicking. You've running the ball and making a lot of plays for the offense."
He noticed an immediate difference Saturday after his big play, saying the hit inspired the rest of the offense.
Clemson wore down the Terrapins' defense after halftime. Maryland entered allowing 123 yards per game on the ground, but the Tigers piled up a season-high 238 rushing yards, with Rod McDowell leading the way with a career-high 163.
"I think it opened up a lot of areas, because after that, the guys started running harder," Watkins said. "The guys started blocking harder, Tajh started wanting to run the ball even though he was hurt. So, it opened up a lot of things in our screen game. We don't run screens, rarely do them with wideouts. I think coach is getting more comfortable with screens with us, knowing we're lowering our shoulder and running through traffic."
An improved run game, Watkins says, helps everyone, taking stress off Boyd to run so frequently and opening up cover 1 and cover 2 coverages for receivers, giving them opportunities down the seams.
Entering what could be his final regular-season month as a college player, Watkins says "I've got to peak with how I'm playing."
"We've got to be good with the things we do," he said. "Tajh is doing a great job communicating with me and giving me the ball, and we've got to keep working hard. He'll continue to keep throwing me the ball a lot. I think coaches are seeing that I am healthy and I can play, trying to target me more."
Watkins a more complete player
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