CLEMSON, S.C. — The Tigers will be without star receiver Sammy Watkins for their season-opening showdown with Auburn after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney suspended the All-American for two games after an off-season drug arrest.
Watkins was pulled over during a traffic stop May 4 and found to have marijuana and two pills he didn’t have a prescription for. He was charged with two counts of possession, both misdemeanor charges. The 19-year-old Watkins was eligible for a pretrial intervention program as a first time offender.
Swinney said he told Watkins then he could sit him for as many as four games if the receiver didn’t follow guidelines of his team or legal punishment. Swinney met with Watkins’ attorney Bob Ariail earlier Friday to make sure the sophomore complied with the rules of intervention program.
“I’m glad I took some time and didn’t make an emotional decision,” Swinney said Friday night after the team’s opening practice of fall camp.
Now, it’s the Tigers who will have to find a way to get by without one of their main playmakers in their opener at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 1.
“I hate that we won’t have him,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “But this will give some of our other guys the chance to step up.”
Watkins, voted the Atlantic Coast Conference’s preseason player of the year in July, will also miss Clemson’s home opener against Ball State on Sept. 8.
Watkins was a record-setter as a freshman, finishing with 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was also a dynamic kick returner, leading the team with a 25-yard average and bringing one back for a touchdown in the Tigers comeback win over Maryland last season. He was named to the AP All-America team as an all-purpose player.
Watkins took full responsibility for his transgression and promised he’d matured since the arrest.
“I didn’t care how many games it was,” said Watkins. “I didn’t care what the outcome was, I just wanted to serve my consequences.”
Video of the arrest showed a compliant, polite Watkins cooperating fully with law enforcement. Watkins took the same approach in the three months since as he tried to work his way back into favor with his coaches and teammates.
“I just kept good spirits, stayed humble through the whole situation because I messed up, no one else messed up,” he said.
Swinney had said shortly after the arrest that Watkins would likely miss game time.
“I’m really proud of him. Just did a really fantastic job with everything that was asked of him,” the coach said. “All you can do is respond when you make a mistake and he’s responded the right way.”
Clemson does have some other firepower at receiver. Junior DeAndre Hopkins caught 72 passes last year for 976 yards and five touchdowns. Martavis Bryant had just nine catches last season, but the freshman led the team with nearly 25 yards a reception.
Losing Watkins against Auburn, though, was not how Clemson hoped to follow up its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship season in 20 years. Clemson started 8-0 last season before fading late and had counted on Watkins play for another fast start.
Watkins first gained national attention in Clemson’s 38-24 win over Auburn at Death Valley last September. He caught 10 passes for 155 yards – his first of five games with at least 100 receiving yards – and two touchdowns.
Watkins said he’ll continue to work hard at practice and on the sidelines during the games he’s missed. He’ll be ready, he says, to play just as well as ever when he’s eligible to return Sept. 15 against FCS opponent Furman.
“The fact is even though I’ve messed up, I’ve still got to come out and work hard like I’ve been doing,” he said.
Swinney told the players of Watkins’ punishment Friday. Center Dalton Freeman said he understood the suspension, but was ready to move on.
‘’There’s nothing we can do about it,” Freeman said. “Now we just have to get ready and put it behind us.”