MIAMI — When Sammy Watkins first arrived on Clemson’s campus last summer and reported for a workout with other incoming freshman receivers, quarterback Tajh Boyd sent him out for a pass.
“I told him to run a post route, and I threw it and thought I overthrew him,” Boyd said. “But his speed was so ridiculous. I was like, ‘It doesn’t get any better than that.’”
That completion offered a hint of things to come in the ensuing months. Watkins set a school record with 1,153 yards receiving, was chosen a first-team All-American and helped the Tigers earn their first major bowl berth in 30 years.
Clemson (10-3) will face West Virginia (9-3) in a chilly Orange Bowl tonight, and Watkins is the player who most concerns the Mountaineers.
“Clemson’s offense runs through Sammy,” West Virginia defensive back Eain Smith said. “You eliminate Sammy’s big plays, you eliminate their offense.”
Well, not entirely. Boyd set school records for yards passing, passing touchdowns and total offense. First-team All-American Dwayne Allen won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Andre Ellington has rushed for 1,062 yards and 10 scores.
But everyone agrees the 18-year-old Watkins was the primary catalyst for a team that scored at least 35 points eight times. His first touchdown came 26 seconds into the season, and he finished the regular season with 12 scores, 77 receptions, 229 yards rushing and a kickoff return average of 26.3.
He became only the third true freshman to be selected a first-team All-American, joining Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson.
“Somebody had better check his birth certificate,” Allen said, “because there’s no way this kid is 18.”
The forecast calls for temperatures in the 50s at kickoff, but Clemson and West Virginia still are likely to heat up the scoreboard.
The Mountaineers’ Geno Smith has thrown for 3,978 yards this season. His targets include Stedman Bailey, who set a school record with 1,197 yards receiving, and Tavon Austin, who set another school record with 89 receptions and ranked No. 2 nationally in all-purpose yards per game.