You see it, if you look closely enough, in the numbers. You see it in plays like the third snap of the game against Wake Forest. Put it all together and you get the feeling: Sammy Watkins is back.
The guy who was the fourth true freshman ever to be named an Associated Press All-American, who set every Clemson freshman receiving record you could think of in 2011?
The guy who disappeared in a haze of suspension, illness and injury in 2012?
Yeah, that guy.
Entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Syracuse, Watkins is rounding back into the form that made him one of college football's most dangerous offensive weapons. He has 25 receptions for 355 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 88.8 receiving yards per game.
More important, however, is how Watkins feels. Which, by the way, is pretty good.
"I think I'm really just getting on a roll and starting to find myself back," Watkins said. "Playing fast and having fun."
Last fall, Watkins had his moments, like a Clemson-record 202-yard receiving game at Wake Forest. But he never really found his mojo after serving a two-game suspension connected with a spring drug arrest.
And just as he proclaimed he was healthy and ready for a breakout game, he was sidelined two plays into the Chick-fil-A Bowl with a sprained ankle following a vicious hit from charging LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo.
This offseason, Watkins healed, but he also matured. Along with fellow juniors Martavis Bryant and Adam Humphries, he is the oldest member of the Clemson receiving corps, and the guy everyone looks to for leadership.
"I enjoy being a leader," he said. "I'm practicing hard every day, I'm being watched every day, and they feed off me, Tajh (Boyd) and the offensive line. If we come out there quiet or looking down, it's a bad practice. I've got to be on my best behavior every day."
Watkins admits being a vocal leader isn't his default mode, but he's working on better expressing himself that way.
"I think it's grown onto me now," he said. "I'm more of a lead by example type guy, but those guys don't win that much. You've got to start speaking when you get older. And a lot of guys look up to me. Now I'm not doing it for myself, I'm doing it for the team. When I speak up, I think it impacts a lot of guys on the team. I don't say much but when I do they're actually looking forward to it."
On the surface, Watkins' stats are not especially impressive – he's averaging 8.3 receptions and 88.8 yards per game.
But he has surpassed 100 yards in two of three games and fallen just short of a third, making 10 catches for 96 yards at N.C. State. And while he had three receptions for 19 yards against South Carolina State, he played just 30 snaps and didn't play after halftime.
"As we keep going I think I'm going to improve every game with working on the edge, being physical and blocking, and coaches do a great job getting me the ball early and quick," he said. "In these previous games I've been taken out in the second and third quarters. I can't focus on (stats). It's really about winning. "
Saturday, he had five receptions for 113 yards and a 64-yard touchdown against Wake Forest. That score – which came on Clemson's third offensive play – was vintage Watkins: Wake's corner pushed him out of bounds, but Watkins calmly ran right back into the field of play, hauled in Boyd's toss over his right shoulder and raced the rest of the way for an easy score.
If those around him improve and Boyd can get him the ball in one-on-one scenarios, expect many more moments like that as 2013 rolls on.
For now, Watkins is happy – and playing care-free. The guy who dominated in 2011 is on his way back, if he isn't already here.
"I just go out there and worry about having fun and whatever happens, happens," he said. "That's the thing with football – you can get hurt any play. I go out there, work hard, open-mindedly and hope to get the win."
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