Hopkins is 14th-ranked Clemson’s other receiver opposite star All-American Sammy Watkins. But it’s Hopkins who has grabbed the headlines so far this season. He leads the Atlantic Coast Conference with 49 catches for 777 yards.
He has set single-game school marks this season with 13 catches against Auburn and 197 yards receiving against Boston College. He tied a school mark with three touchdowns in a win over Ball State. Hopkins is as big a reason as any Clemson’s offense is clicking along at record pace.
Hopkins and the Tigers (5-1, 2-1 ACC) try and keep things going against Virginia Tech (4-3, 2-1) on Saturday.
Though he is getting more attention because of his play, Hopkins generally avoids the spotlight like he avoids most defenders.
“I let my play do the talking,” Hopkins said this week. “I feel like if too much is said, it’s politicking.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior’s performance has done all the talking necessary. Hopkins has stepped into the primary receiving role left open because of Watkins’ sluggish first half.
Watkins has missed three games because of suspension and illness. He’s got just 16 catches for 118 yards and no touchdowns this year.
Hopkins had a stellar season in 2011 with 72 catches for 978 yards, a year largely swallowed up by Watkins’ 82 grabs for 1,219 yards and 12 TDs. While Watkins gained All-American honors and countless headlines, Hopkins was content to quietly do his share.
“I’ve been doing this since my freshman year, so it’s not really a surprise to me,” Hopkins said.
Not to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who’s watched Hopkins steadily mature into a star for the Tigers.
“He does things now that we are numb to it because he does it every day,” Swinney said. “He’s got a gift and now he’s put the technical part with it.”
Just listen the next time Hopkins makes a catch at Clemson’s Death Valley. The fans shout out, “NUUUK,” Hopkins’ nickname since he was a child. But it didn’t come from – as you might think – the young man’s explosiveness as an athlete.
Hopkins acknowledged his “Nuk” name came from a brand of baby pacifier that was the only one he wouldn’t bite through. “It was just a neighborhood name for me,” he said. “I tell people I got it because I’m a nuclear bomb because I’m explosive.
“I think if people find out, they might start throwing pacifiers on the field,” Hopkins said with a smile.
Hopkins also gained some early-season attention for a deeply personal decision – he chose last month to reenact his baptismal ceremony after a Clemson practice in front of those teammates who wanted to stay. Clemson coach Jeff Scott Tweeted out a picture of the ceremony, praising Hopkins’ maturity.
The picture also brought out some negative words toward Hopkins and Scott on Twitter from those who believe religion shouldn’t be part of football. Hopkins chose not to discuss his baptism, saying only he did not think it affects his showing on the field.
Hopkins is pleased with his play and in helping Clemson chase a second straight league crown. He says the Tigers will have a tough test with the Hokies, who lost twice to Clemson last season, including 38-10 in the ACC title game, and who’ll want revenge.
Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor said Hopkins is key part of Clemson’s quick-strike attack along with Watkins, Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd and tailback Andre Elllington. “They’re the reasons that this offense is very successful,” Taylor said. “And the fact they can confuse a defense with all the misdirection.”
Hopkins direction to the NFL seems clear, although he’s not yet thinking about a choice he’ll have after the season to jump into the draft instead of playing his senior year.
“I’m capturing this moment, enjoying every minute every day,” he says. “You think about longterm, you kind of forget to have fun right now.”