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Dabo Swinney: Watkins is one in a million

Posted May 9, 2014

Dabo Swinney holds three-time All-American WR Sammy Watkins in high regard on and off the field.


Just about anyone could watch a Sammy Watkins highlight reel and recognize the special kind of football player he is. Still, for a man who coached wide receivers for almost his entire coaching career and had seen more than his share of elite talent, the first day he saw Watkins on a field was eye popping.

“The first time I saw him in person was in our camp,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “He came up to our camp the summer before his senior year (in high school) and I remember we had been watching him on tape and just loved him. But I hadn’t seen him live yet and we were standing there doing some individual (position drills) and getting ready to run some routes versus air and some 7-on-7. And he came off the ball on his first route and my exact words were, ‘That’s different. That’s different.’”

Swinney’s receivers coach Jeff Scott was equally impressed.

“I remember after the first route I was calling over some of the other coaches from the other field to check this guy out because it was just something that I had never seen before,” Scott told Buffalobills.com. “It was unbelievable to see his explosiveness and the combination he has of great speed, explosion and hands. A lot of times those traits don’t always go together.”

Watkins had already been offered a scholarship to Clemson prior to that summer camp. However, it was C.J. Spiller, a fellow Florida native, who convinced Watkins to enroll at Clemson.

“I definitely went to Clemson because of him,” Watkins said. “We had a couple of conversations about going to Clemson. I’ve looked up to him since I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. It’s going to be a pleasure playing with him and hopefully we’re still playing eight or 10 years from now.”

Watkins’ freshman season at Clemson was almost unprecedented. With 82 catches for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns he had one of the best freshman years in the history of college football. He was just the fourth player in college football to be named an AP 1st team All-American as a true freshman.

The only problem was the newfound fame and attention that came with his monster debut season led to some complacency. Watkins sophomore season did not effectively follow up the one before it. He wasn’t as fit, he didn’t eat or sleep right and his production suffered. His receptions dropped by more than 30 percent and his receiving yardage was almost cut in half.

“I think he just got distracted a little bit with all of the new fame and he realized that he got away from what really made him special, which was his work ethic and attention to detail and the way that he approached the game,” said Scott.

“I think it was a natural reaction from a young guy who was 18 and didn’t know that college was that serious,” said Watkins. “All I was doing was playing football and having fun and scoring touchdowns and then to be put on a stage like that you can’t recognize it. You’re just a young guy having fun and afterwards you realize how many people look up to you. I learned from all my mistakes and I’m a guy where if it happened one time it won’t happen again.”

Scott could tell that the results of his 2012 season ate at Watkins. The talented receiver realized he had not made the most of his sophomore season and immediately committed to redoubling his efforts to build on the freshman season that put him on the NFL radar.

“As we got back and ready to go into his junior year which we obviously knew he was putting himself in position to have a great year and a chance to be a top five or top 10 pick. We just talked and really just laid it out that he had to go back to work and he was ready,” Scott said. “You could see the look in his eye that he was focused and he wanted to be sure that his last year at Clemson was even better than his freshman year, which was hard to do.”

Despite being the marked man for every defense that Clemson faced, Watkins had big time production. His 101 receptions went for almost 1,500 yards in just 13 games. He also had 12 touchdowns matching his freshman total.

“You’ve got to know my background,” said Swinney. “I played wideout and coached wideout and made my living coaching wideout my whole life and I’ve been around some good ones, but that guy right there is one in a million. He’s unique. He’s different. He’s uncommon and it won’t take long for everybody to figure that out.”

What Buffalo is also getting is a receiver who despite his dominant exploits on the field is as humble as they come.

“He’s the most low maintenance superstar I’ve ever dealt with,” said Swinney. “This guy is just easy. He loves to study ball. He loves to practice. He’s just an easy personality to deal with. He’s really reserved and shy. He’s not a limelight kind of guy, but he plays big, and I can’t wait to see him get up there and get teamed up with those other guys that Buffalo has.”

Watkins often asked his coaches to coach him hard. He didn’t want special treatment. Instead he wanted to be pushed to his fullest potential.

“Sometimes the great players at the skill positions they have a lot of different personalities,” he said. “Some guys you can coach hard and some guys you have to coach a different way. But Sammy was a guy who wanted to be known as the hardest worker and wanted to be sure that you as a coach were coaching every detail and staying on him and not giving him an inch.

“He was perfectionist on the practice field and in the meeting rooms and he wanted to be sure that we as coaches were going to hold him to that standard. That’s one of the reasons he’s as special as he is today as a player and a person because of that attitude.”

“The best thing I can do is stay humble,” Watkins said. “I don’t like talking about my game or my accomplishments. That’s what the media is for. All I love doing is playing football and dominating defenses and being a great citizen. That’s what it’s about. That’s when you get more out of being a leader. Being the figure that kids look up to. That’s what God put me on this earth to do is to lead and that’s what I’m going to do.