Watkins was a freshman All-American in 2011 and helped Clemson to its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 20 years. But a two-game suspension, injuries and Hopkins' emergence last fall kept Watkins a second option much of the season. Watkins made his impact felt in the scrimmage with scoring catches of 41 and 50 yards from Cole Stoudt. Watkins had seven catches for 156 yards, better than he did in all but one of the nine games he played last year.
Watkins' big day didn't help his White team, which lost to the Orange 34-26 at Death Valley. Still, it was a relief for the thousands of Tigers fans who wondered what happened to their explosive receiver last season as he had 25 fewer catches, 511 fewer receiving yards and nine fewer touchdowns than his debut college season.
"I think I had a solid, OK year," Watkins said. "I don't know about the sophomore slump, but I didn't meet any of the expectations I had for myself."
Watkins looked intent on turning that around in the spring game. While some stars sit out such scrimmages - ACC player of the year Tajh Boyd didn't take a snap Saturday - Watkins was in throughout the game. With his team trailing 17-0, Watkins sneaked past the secondary and caught Cole Stoudt's pass two yards from the end zone for his first TD catch.
On his team's next series, Watkins ran a sharp slant pattern near the line of scrimmage, caught the ball in traffic and outran everyone else for the 50-yard score.
"It feels good just to come out here and play and just have fun," Watkins said.
Clemson hopes Watkins' fun continues this fall. He'll be counted on heavily to make up for the loss of Hopkins, who gave up his senior season to turn pro. Hopkins had 82 receptions last year for a school record 1,405 yards and an ACC record 18 touchdowns.
Hopkins was also Boyd's go-to receiver with games on the line - remember that sliding 26-yard grab on fourth-and-16 Hopkins had on Clemson's game winning drive to beat LSU at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl?. That's something Watkins wants to re-establish with his quarterback.
"Just doing things better, working hard for my releases and just going up for the ball," he said. "Those are things I've got to work on for next season."
Watkins and the Tigers have 20 weeks until Memorial Stadium fills up again for the 2013 opener with Southeastern Conference power Georgia on Aug. 31.
Watkins and Boyd got a sneak-peek at their opening a week ago when they attended Georgia's spring game - until they got recognized by Bulldog fans. "That's when we had to get out of there," Watkins said, smiling.
Boyd's backup, Stoudt, got most of the work and set a Clemson spring game mark with 304 yards passing to go with four touchdowns. Stoudt, the son of former NFL passer Cliff Stoudt, is unlikely to see much significant time unless Boyd gets injured. Boyd chose to return for his senior season instead of declaring for the NFL drought.
Boyd shuttled from sideline to sideline helping Clemson's quarterbacks. He was right alongside reserve passer Chad Kelly, the nephew of ex-Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly, when he went down with a serious knee injury. "It was tough watching from the sideline," Boyd said.
He surely liked what he saw from the offense, however. Along with Watkins, receivers Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake each had seven catches and a touchdown in offensive coordinator Chad Morris' fast-paced attack.
Boyd even enjoyed watching Stoudt shine at his position. "I think we have a chance to be special," he said. "Today was an exciting day."
Clemson finished last season 11-2, its most victories since its 12-0, national championship season of 1981. The Tigers and coach Dabo Swinney have made no secret this spring their goals include another national championship. Having Watkins back to his freshman form will certainly help.
"We've got some pretty good stuff going," Stoudt said.