Watkins blew past Florida State defenders last year in his fourth game as a collegiate player. He caught seven passes for 141 yards and two long touchdowns in the Tigers’ 35-30 win on their way to the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
The fourth-ranked Seminoles (3-0, 1-0 ACC) host Watkins and the No. 10 Tigers (3-0) on Saturday.
“He’s just a phenomenal player,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Monday.
“The most impactful freshman, maybe since Herschel Walker,” Fisher added, comparing Watkins to the former Georgia star. “Sammy made that kind of impact the day that he came in.”
The Seminoles weren’t the only team that couldn’t contain Watkins, who finished the season with 2,288 all-purpose yards, 13 touchdowns and All-American honors.
Watkins, from Fort Myers, grew up a Florida State fan and hoped to become a Seminole one day. That didn’t happen as Fisher and his staff recruited wide receivers Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, who both play key roles for the Seminoles.
“I actually liked them during my recruitment,” said Watkins, though he never took a recruiting visit to Tallahassee. “I like everybody I watched. But they just didn’t recruit me hard enough.”
He said he doesn’t hold any grudges.
“Not at all,” Watkins said Monday. “I just play the game.”
And, he concedes, it’s not getting any easier as opponents have seen plenty of him, at least on film.
“I’m seeing different coverages, seeing different things,” Watkins said. “I just think they’re going to be prepared and ready. They’re going to have a game plan ready.”
Now it’s up to Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to come up with the answers to slow down Watkins in Clemson’s ACC opener.
“Great talent, off the charts,” Stoops said at Florida State’s media day last month. “You just can’t zero in on him, their other guys can hurt you in a minute.”
Indeed, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Watkins is far from a one-man wrecking crew with Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins in Clemson’s offensive arsenal.
“The guys around him are pretty good too and he makes them better and they make him better,” Fisher said.
Boyd, who shredded the Seminole secondary last year for 344 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, has already thrown for 747 yards and six touchdowns and ranks second in passing efficiency in the ACC, right behind Florida State’s EJ Manuel.
Ellington is the league’s leading rusher, averaging 109.3 yards a game, and Hopkins the top receiver with 26 catches for 319 yards and four touchdowns.
“They can run and throw the ball,” Fisher said. “They have very good players.”
Although Florida State’s players are mostly back from last year, Fisher said it’s a much different team that will take on a mostly familiar Clemson squad.
He knows there’s a lot riding on Saturday’s outcome.
“This is a very important game,” Fisher said. “But hopefully during our time at Florida State we’re going to play a lot of important games.”