Watkins, Hopkins present huge test for FSU
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Clemson has plenty of playmakers on offense. But the Tigers have a once-in-a-lifetime talent in receiver Sammy Watkins.
Watkins caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011. And ran for 231 yards. He rewrote Clemson's receiving record books. As a freshman.
"He might have been the most impactful freshman maybe since Herschel Walker," said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said of the legendary Georgia running back. "I may have stepped over somebody or forgotten somebody, and I don't mean that. But remember Herschel Walker won the national championship his freshman year (in 1980).
"Sammy kind of made that impact the day he came in, it seemed like to me. I can't think of a freshman that had that kind of impact like he did. He's just a phenomenal player."
Florida State knew about Watkins, who grew up in Fort Myers and was considered one of the state's top players in the class of 2011. Watkins received offers from FSU, Florida, Miami, Georgia, Tennessee, USC and West Virginia, but opted for Clemson.
And when Watkins took the field last year against FSU, hewas impressive in grabbing seven passes for 141 yards — including a 24-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and then a 62-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter that put Clemson up by 12 points and cemented the Tigers' 35-30 win.
FSU knew all about Watkins, but the Seminoles just couldn't stop him.
"Surprised me a little bit," FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said this summer. "You knew he was a fantastic player, but he was off the charts."
Watkins was suspended for the first two games of this season for an offseason arrest, but returned last week to grab four passes for 52 yards in a rout of Furman. And while all of the attention is often directed on Watkins, receiver DeAndre Hopkins was just 22 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season in 2011. And already in 2012, Hopkins has accumulated 26 receptions for 319 yards and four touchdowns.
Florida State junior defensive back Xavier Rhodes was responsible for covering Hopkins last season, but this time, Rhodes will likely alternate between Watkins and Hopkins.
"Sammy is all of it — he's physical, he's fast," Rhodes said. "Hopkins is fast, he's very shifty. He's not as physical as Sammy. That's the difference between the two."
Watkins and Hopkins may be the best group of receivers on FSU's schedule in 2012 and are surely among the top receiving tandems in college football (alongside Southern Cal's Marqise Lee and Robert Woods). But when it comes to facing good receivers, the Seminoles' defensive backs feel they are as prepared as they can be by Saturday.
"I go against it every day with our receivers (in practice)," Rhodes said. "I go against it every day. It ain't really nothing new to me."
Rhodes isn't trying to turn one of the key matchups of the showdown between No. 4 FSU and No. 10 Clemson into a ho-hum thing -- he just feels the challenge is the same each week for FSU. It doesn't matter which receiver he is defending, it's important that he does his job, whether it's Watkins or anyone else.
"I don't get excited," Rhodes said. "That's just going to bring pressure on me. I want less pressure. I just want to go in confident and play."
While Rhodes is a junior and has big-game experience, FSU's other starting corner is sophomore Nick Waisome, who has done well but is starting just his fourth collegiate game. Waisome has been challenged before, but now faces something far different Saturday night.
Rhodes said he believes that playing defensive back is about not second-guessing your talents because a loss in confidence means the defensive back will lose. And Waisome agrees with that philosophy.
"I'm going in there and I want him (Watkings) to have zero receptions," Waisome said. "That's just how I go about it. Obviously you are going to give up some, that's just part of the game. …
"They definitely have great receivers, and I feel like we have great DBs. We are just going to have to go out there like a dogfight and come out on top."