Who will replace Sammy Watkins?

CLEMSON – Jeff Scott knew, perhaps before a lot of others.

In August 2011, Clemson’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator watched Sammy Watkins go through his first official workout as a collegiate wide receiver.

Shortly afterward, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters that Watkins was already a first-team wide receiver, unheard of for a true freshman.

“I knew after Sammy’s first practice,” Scott said recently, “that he wasn’t going to be around here very long.”

Some advance planning was required – preparing for the 2014 recruiting class, not 2015. Watkins looked like a sure-fire three-and-done player, and others in his class could join him.

Scott’s premonition was correct: Watkins declared for the NFL draft in January after becoming the Tigers’ all-time reception, reception yards and receiving touchdowns leader in just three seasons and is expected to be a top-10 pick in May’s draft. Fellow junior Martavis Bryant joined him in jumping to the pro ranks and is projected as a mid-round selection.

“We knew that if we waited until after the Orange Bowl in the locker room to figure out how to replace Sammy and Martavis, we’d be in trouble,” Scott said.

Clemson was prepared: even before Watkins and Bryant declared, the Tigers had commitments from three four-star receivers who arrived on campus in January. Add in four-star wideout Trevion Thompson, and Scott signed one of the nation’s top wide receiver recruiting classes.

6-foot-1 receiver Demarre Kitt of Tyrone, Ga., 5-10 Artavis Scott of Tarpon Springs, Fla., and 6-3 Kyrin Priester of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, by way of Snellville, Ga., have all enrolled at Clemson and will go through spring practice with their new teammates.

By August, all four players will be on campus with the opportunity to make an immediate impact.

“It’s huge,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It was a critical need for us, to get those four guys. We’re really excited about all four of those guys. Three of them are here, and that’s a big-time blessing. We’ll get the chance to coach them all spring and by August, it ought to be like they’re all redshirt guys.”

Without Watkins and Bryant, Clemson has definite need in its wide receiver corps. Steady rising senior Adam Humphries (41 receptions, 483 yards, 2 TD in 2013) returns, as does standout rising sophomore Mike Williams (20 receptions, 316 yards, 3 TD as a freshman). Junior Charone Peake should be cleared by August in his return from a torn ACL, and rising sophomore Germone Hopper is also talented.

The new arrivals all bring something different to Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Kitt blends size and speed and comes from the same program – Sandy Creek High School – that produced Detroit Lions All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson. In his last three seasons of high school, he had 158 receptions for 2,663 yards and 28 touchdowns, adding 306 punt return yards with a 16.1-yard average.

“We’re very excited,” Scott said. “Their head coach (Chip Walker) does an excellent job and has been very successful, and (Kitt) has been coached very well. He has that ‘It” factor. He’s someone we recruited very hard.”

Scott is smaller, but serves as a speedy all-around threat. As a junior, he had 64 receptions for 995 yards and 10 touchdowns. As a senior, he had 67 carries for 729 yards and 13 touchdowns as well as 37 receptions for 542 yards and five receiving touchdowns.

He’s smaller than Watkins, but possesses many of the same gamebreaking capabilities.

East Lake (Fla.) High School coach Bob Hudson said he knew he had something special when Scott started his high school debut as a freshman with a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown.

“Speed-wide, he’s like a handful of guys,” Hudson said. “We’re in Florida – I’ve had fast guys. But I haven’t had guys with the playmaking ability he has. In my 18 years, I can’t compare him to anyone I’ve coached with that skill set. He’s one of those guys you love to have. He can come out of the backfield, get the ball, use him with short passes, press vertically. You love to use those types of guys who are multidimensional.”

Hudson says Scott is extremely competitive and worked very hard on his skill set, fundamentals and techniques with “lots of God-given talent.”

“He’s so explosive,” Hudson said. “Say his second and third gear, he creates space to get the ball and he’s fast enough to finish the play. It’s a great thing to have. If you get him that short pass and someone misses a tackle, look out.”

Priester might be the most polished of the bunch.

He originally signed with Clemson in February 2013, but didn’t qualify academically and spent the fall semester at Fork Union. As a senior at Brookwood (Ga.) High School, he had 56 receptions for 1,113 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns.

“He took a pit stop at Fork Union and he’s a little bit older, and physically you can tell that,” Scott said. “He’s more physically mature than the average freshman, and he can work at several different positions.”

Thompson also blends size and speed. The Durham, N.C. native chose Clemson over North Carolina, N.C. State, West Virginia and Ohio State: he had 57 receptions for 984 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior at Hillside High School.

“He’s a guy we’ve followed for a long time, going-on two years,” Scott said. “He’s very athletic and a guy who can help us at the boundary position. He’s a guy we think can stretch the field and has good ball skills. We’re excited about him.”

While Peake was also a four-star recruit coming out of Dorman High School – and had developed into a starter before tearing his ACL in September 2013 – the new wideouts are the next wave in Clemson’s wide receiver legacy, along with Williams (who showed signs of big things last fall).

Under Morris and Scott’s tutelage, DeAndre Hopkins developed into an NFL first-round pick, going 26th overall to the Houston Texans in April 2013. Watkins appears certain to follow his lead and then some this spring.

“We’ve had three wideouts who have left as third-year players and pretty highly drafted guys,” Scott said. “There are positives in that. We’re having a lot of success here and having guys with a future at the next level. The negative is that you get them for three seasons, but you have to continue to stay ahead of that curve and give coach Morris and coach Swinney all the weapons they need for success.”

In other words, recruiting with classes like 2014’s wide receiver group.

“We’re here having success and we’re able to use that success to recruit other young men starting as juniors in high school,” Scott said. “First you have to ID the guys you want that can come in and have first pick. Once you ID those guys, you show how they can come in behind those (stars) and have an opportunity to break their records.”

And with any luck, the cycle will repeat itself in three years or so.

“I hope we’re up here in three or four years,” Scott said, “talking about replacing them.”

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