Watkins stands out in Tigers’ spring game

CLEMSON, S.C. — The Clemson Tigers gave their fans a reprieve from a weekend of golf by staging their annual spring game at Clemson Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon. Taking stock in the Orange’s 34-26 win over the White on the afternoon:

1. Should we re-start Sammy Watkins’ Heisman talk?

Watkins’ sophomore slump — one hindered by both a suspension and injuries — was well documented throughout the 2012 season. He quickly fell out of contention for many major awards after being named a first-team All-American and national freshman of the year by numerous outlets.

The receiver finished with a respectable, but underachieving, 57 receptions, 708 yards and three scores. In every respect, he was overshadowed by DeAndre Hopkins, who completed his Tigers career as one of the most accomplished receivers in school history.

In 2013, Watkins will fill Hopkins’ role in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ offense. On Saturday, he looked more than capable.

Though Morris noted Watkins was still shaking off some rust, Watkins still wrapped up the day with 156 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

It’s likely still too early to tell if he’s back to freshman form, but, honestly, when he’s knifing through defenses — even his own — he’s a hard one to ignore. More on the rising junior in a minute.

2. Injuries can really put a damper on a spring game

Though there were plenty of points to be had in the first half, leg injuries — mostly of the knee variety — ultimately dominated the conversation after the game. On four separate occasions, play was stalled by a Clemson player lying on the field in pain.

According to the team, the worst of the bunch was quarterback Chad Kelly’s knee injury, which is feared to be a torn ACL and could preemptively end his 2013 campaign. Clemson will offer an official announcement on Sunday, but coach Dabo Swinney did not rule out the idea of Kelly being available this fall.

Kelly, a former three-star recruit from Buffalo, N.Y., was projected to be the second- or third-string signal-caller behind Tajh Boyd, who is garnering All-American mentions entering his senior season.

Projected starting tight end Sam Cooper and second-string lineman Kalon Davis also suffered knee injuries, though they are not believed to be as serious. The Tigers lost all three players within the first 20 plays of the game.

With Swinney’s top-20 recruiting classes (according to Scout.com) stacking up, there are plenty of talented players in the program to help fill the void. But still, losing anyone during spring practice or, perhaps even worse given the publicity and timing of it, during the spring game is never good news for any coaching staff.

3. Despite Brent Venables’ best efforts, the Tigers still look like an offense-dominated program

The least surprising occurrence in Clemson Memorial Stadium Saturday? Points. Lots of points.

The Tigers want to play fast-paced football and find the end zone; that’s their M.O. And despite a first half muddied by the aforementioned injuries, the fireworks (Clemson still used some sort of explosion mechanism to signal points scored and even uncontested, one-on-one kickoffs from kicker to returner) were still present. The two opposing offenses ran 92 plays combined in the first half for 600-plus yards.

That’s about as close to the typical early-fall Clemson box score as you’re going to get.

But the Tigers are considered ACC favorites and darkhorse title contenders in 2013, which brings up the question of whether defensive coordinator Brent Venables will run out a better unit this season. The Tigers allowed 24.8 points per game last season (48th nationally). Not terrible.

However, using recent history as a guide, that’s not likely to be good enough to bring home a BCS Championship trophy.

Venables is entering his second season in charge of the defense, a year in which many other coordinators around the country (think: Todd Grantham, Georgia) have seen huge improvements. Following the spring game, he said he felt much more comfortable with his front seven than he did a year ago and expects his defense to be better all around.

But they need to improve.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Venables said. “How we work and what we invest in the next couple of months and the leadership developed and the accountability that we have will determine whether or not we have an opportunity to have a chance to be pretty good this fall. Without that, it isn’t gonna happen.”

Star Watch: Sammy Watkins

Back to Clemson’s most dynamic player for a minute, because no matter what the statistics or rumors or awards watch lists say, Watkins will more than likely be the best receiver in the ACC next season, perhaps one of the very best in the country. His playmaking skills and understanding of the game — just listen to him break down coverages some time — should make it possible for him to make a smooth transition into his new role.

“I feel comfortable being the boundary (receiver), just reading the Cover-2 and Cover-4 defenses, seeing the safety roll one high,” Watkins said. “It’s a great feeling knowing the ball is coming to you most of the time. Just reading, just being patient.”

Regardless of his obvious physical gifts during Saturday’s spring game — an outing which featured two touchdowns of 40-plus yards, despite playing the majority of his snaps with Tajh Boyd’s backups — Watkins and Morris were adamant that they expect more to come. Really, the entire offense does, according to its up-tempo coordinator.

But especially Watkins, who everyone expects to be the star. No excuses.

“I think he needed to get as many reps as possible headed into the summer,” Morris said. “He dropped a couple balls and he should have went up and challenged a couple other balls. He’s got a lot of work to do. And that’s my focus point to him when I have my seven-minute meeting with him. I’m going to be straight and to the point … If he wants to pick up and be where he was his freshman year and where Nuke (Hopkins) left off, he’s got a lot of work to do.”

As the one-time All-American wideout milled around with media members following the spring showcase, his answers remained constant: He’s ready to put in said work.