Beginning with a May arrest on drug charges that earned him a two-game suspension to begin the regular season, continuing through a sophomore year where he seemingly never quite got on track and winding up with a sprained ankle two plays into the Chick-fil-A Bowl courtesy of LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, Clemson’s standout wide receiver had the kind of year only a mother could love.
Maybe that explains why Watkins’ family is much closer now than it was in the first two years of his college career – and why Watkins feels he is poised for a bounceback junior season.
Watkins’ mother, Nicole McMiller, his stepfather, James McMiller (whom Watkins considers his father), and two sisters are living in the Seneca area this fall, staying close to Sammy as he embarks on what could be a life-changing season of college football.
Watkins says having family nearby helps his football focus tremendously.
“The things I had happen last year, it affected me without my parents being there,” he said. “That’s who I look up to the most, who I go to for things. I really wanted them to move up – that helped me with having someone to talk to. I can go over to the house and talk to my mom and dad, go see my little sister, play with her. It’s special to me.”
It is also an escape for Watkins’ family. Watkins came to Clemson in part because it was so far removed from his Fort Myers, Fla., neighborhood, where crime and drugs ran rampant.
Now, his family is removed from that environment as well. Watkins’ family is only the latest to follow their son to Clemson. Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd’s family moved from the Tidewater, Va., area when he signed with the Tigers, and sophomore tailback Zac Brooks and sophomore safety Travis Blanks’ families also followed them to Clemson.
“No, there’s not any violations, everyone’s getting down here on their own,” Boyd said pre-emptively. “People ask me all the time, ‘How do they get a job?’ It’s called being qualified. And rent is cheaper here than in Virginia.”
Boyd says such moves are natural; his family had planned to follow him wherever he signed to play college football.
“It’s been a help for sure,” he said. “In this game, at this level, you’ve got to make sure you’re focused at all points. Especially heading into your later years or becoming such a quote unquote, ‘star player,’ you’ve got to make sure you’re grounded, be the best person you can be and work hard, more important. I think in that position, the family will do whatever it takes to make sure the kids are grounded and humble.”
2012 was certainly humbling for Watkins.
Following a freshman season which saw him become only the fourth true freshman ever to make first-team AP All-America, his numbers fell precipitously in 2012.
In 2011, he had 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 scores; a year ago, those numbers fell to 57 receptions for 708 yards and three scores.
“Last year I don’t think I did bad. I just don’t think I met my expectations for the coaches,” he said. “ I didn’t get as many balls. I’ve got to prepare and focus like I did my freshman year. I’ve got to do the little details that my coaches talk about, and I’ll be fine. I’ve still got my speed, skills, ball skills – I’ve just got to come and work hard every day. I don’t worry about what happens on the field. I’ve just got to practice hard and it’ll pay off.”
This year, Watkins said, leadership is key. With DeAndre Hopkins off to the NFL, Watkins is the clear leader of a talented wide receiver corps.
“I’ve grown. My team took me back in with being a leader,” he said. “Last year I didn’t have that leader mindset. Now I do. I just come every day to work hard and show my team that I’m putting my best foot forward to keep working.”
With family – and team – in his corner, Watkins knows 2013 will be different.
“I really think everything happened for a reason. I can’t control that,” he said. “This year’s definitely going to be a different year, with my focus, my coaches, my team and how they push me. And how I’m approaching this fall.”