Watkins must yield to Hopkins as he returns

Super Sammy Watkins returns for Clemson this weekend after serving a two-game suspension, but in the name of fairness, he needs to step in line behind dandy DeAndre Hopkins in the Tigers’ hierarchy at wide receiver. At least for now.

In reality, both players are going to get a bevy of chances to catch passes and dart into end zones over the next two-plus months.  And it would be no surprise if Watkins explodes and finishes the season with more receptions than Hopkins. But one of the really neat things about Watkins’ absence has been the quick rise of Hopkins on the national radar.

He deserved some acclaim a year ago after hauling in 72 passes for 978 yards and five touchdowns. Watkins was the star – and deservedly so. He caught more passes, scored more touchdowns and also served as a punt returner and an effective runner on occasional sweeps. He has more talent.

But Hopkins is also darn good and is finally getting his just due. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said that Hopkins has been “unbelievable” in Watkins’ absence, but there’s no doubt the coach is happy to have the sophomore back.

“He’s excited, he really is,” Swinney said. “He’s been such a great example to his teammates by handling things the right way. He’s a part of our leadership group. I met with those guys (Monday) and I told him, ‘Now, Sammy, we’re 2-0. Don’t mess it up.’

“He just kind of grinned.”

Swinney said Watkins will play early and get plenty of opportunities, and he doesn’t anticipate it will take him long to get back into the groove of a year ago that would have made him a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate had he not been suspended for the first two games stemming from a summer arrest.

Watkins may see some time on special teams, though Swinney wasn’t willing to concede anything definitive.

It helps that Clemson is playing Furman, an FCS member from Greenville that often serves as early-season fodder for the Tigers. Hopkins can get his receptions in early and Watkins later, and Swinney sending one final message won’t compromise the team’s ability to win the game.

Asked if he has a number in mind of how often he wants Watkins to touch the football, Swinney was noncommittal.

“Not really,” he said. “We just know who needs to get it. We keep a touch chart on the sideline. It’s something I pay close attention to by quarter. From time to time, I’ll make sure I tell somebody to make sure so-and-so gets some touches. It’s usually not an issue. It’s usually in the forefront of all of our thoughts.

“He’s (Watkins) a special player. He’s going to return, he’s going to do all of that stuff.”

Hopkins will also get his and should be the go-to guy early Saturday. In two games, the junior has 19 receptions for 224 yards and four scores. His 13 receptions in the season-opening victory over Auburn set a single-game Clemson record.

A trip to Florida State is up the week following Furman’s visit in a game that could possibly determine the ACC’s Atlantic Division, so expect plenty of repetitions by Watkins. He doesn’t have to corral a dozen passes to get back into the swing of things.

And by the time the Tigers head to Tallahassee, both Watkins and Hopkins could be humming, and that would be just fine by Swinney.