WRITE THIS DOWN | Sammy Watkins will be the first receiver off the board at the NFL draft next month. That prediction would have seemed laughable after Watkins went from freshman All-America at Clemson to all-but-forgotten sophomore. But one small step has reversed his trajectory
ON THE FOURTH FLOOR of a warehouse a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Adidas employees have scattered dumbbells and weight benches and hung a punching bag. The dreary space, with its dripping pipes and peeling paint, resembles a worn-down high school weight room—if that worn-down high school weight room also boasted a craft services table, a DJ, a masseuse and a small army of photographers.
Tucked away in a corner room, awaiting their call to hair and makeup, the stars of today's production—a sneaker-and-apparel photo shoot—spread out across plush couches and talk about jersey numbers. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III ponder how Griffin might handle the quandary created by Washington's recent signing of DeSean Jackson: Griffin wears number 10, just as Jackson did with the Eagles. The two multimillionaires laugh as they unspool the financial and branding ramifications of a numerical switch. Off to the side, former Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins just smiles and shakes his head. Someone asks him what number he wants to wear in the NFL. "I don't care," the 20-year-old Watkins says, laughing. "I just know I can't wear number 2," as he did in college.
In reality Watkins may soon be in a position to demand any of the 20 numbers that the NFL allows receivers to wear (10--19 or 80--89); the 6'1", 205-pound burner is the favorite among NFL mock drafters to be the first receiver selected on May 8. (SI.com has him going as high as No. 2.) But Watkins has no intention of burdening future employers with diva demands. When it comes to jersey numbers, he truly doesn't care, just as he didn't care when fellow Clemson 2011 signee Tony Steward wanted number 7, the numeral Watkins had worn at South Fort Myers (Fla.) High. Both were five-star recruits, Watkins notes, but he figured the player made the number famous. And sure enough, by the middle of Watkins's freshman season, when he was the talk of college football, fans were selling DEUCE IS LOOSE T-shirts.
The man who helped raise Watkins—his stepfather, James McMiller—finds it hilarious (and somewhat comforting) that Sammy has not yet purchased a car or any of the other luxurious trappings favored by standout football players on the verge of wealth. Watkins's agency tried to rent him a Mercedes or a BMW; instead he tooled around Clemson's campus last month in a rented white Buick. "I could get a car, but why?" he asks. "I really don't have time to focus on a car."
Instead, he focuses on a step.
FIVE DAYS before the Adidas shoot, Watkins steers his Buick into a clearing next to Clemson's soccer fields, where the only background noises are chirping birds and the burble of a nearby fountain. From the trunk Watkins removes a gallon of water and four small plastic cones, which he positions at intervals across the field. With no coach to push him, he spends the next hour attempting to perfect just one precise step, grunting as he repeatedly jams a foot hard into the ground to propel himself in a different direction.
For any receiver, the best chance to create separation from a defender comes at the moment he plants a cleat and changes course. The move is required by every pattern—the hitch, the curl, the post—except for the go. Receivers who can't fully control their bodies, who aren't willing to perfect that single precise cut until their thighs scream, approach their breaks in the same way that Fred Flintstone approaches a bowling lane: They take tiny tiptoe steps to manage their momentum, thus slowing down and allowing cornerbacks to mirror their directional shift.
The great ones—the Jerry Rices and the Larry Fitzgeralds—require just one authoritative dig, using the earth to launch themselves in a new direction. That step might buy six inches of daylight, and that might be the difference between a four-yard gain and a 40-yard touchdown. And over the course of a decade that step, executed with precision every time, could be the difference between an average career and a Hall of Fame jacket. (It can also be a great equalizer for someone the stature of Watkins, whose mere 34-inch vertical jump ranked 28th among the 42 receivers at the NFL combine.)
There was a time not long ago when Watkins didn't have that step. Clemson receivers coach Jeff Scott remembers it well. He found out about Watkins from his own father, Brad Scott, who at the time was the Tigers' offensive line coach. Over the years Brad had recruited across southwest Florida; in 1985 he helped Florida State's Bobby Bowden land Deion Sanders from North Fort Myers High. So Jeff didn't take it lightly when his dad called Watkins the best high school player he'd seen since Prime Time.
After witnessing the rising senior run just one curl at a Clemson camp in June 2010, the younger Scott understood. "His acceleration off the line was so fast that he just about fell down when he [tried] to make that break," Jeff says. He remembers telling Watkins, "You're like a 15-year-old kid whose dad just gave him a Ferrari. You've got all this power, and you don't have any idea how to drive it."
What Watkins had was a passionate desire to improve. By the time he signed with Clemson in February 2011, he'd made dramatic leaps, and that August, when the Tigers opened practice, he delivered what Jeff Scott calls "the most unbelievable first day that any of our coaches had ever seen." By the end of practice number 2, Watkins was a starter. By the time 11th-ranked Florida State visited that October, the freshman was helping call plays.
For the first three quarters of the game that ultimately decided the ACC's 2011 Atlantic Division title, Seminoles cornerback Mike Harris (an eventual pro with the Jaguars) played Watkins tight. After snagging a few slants for first downs, Watkins noticed that Harris was closing hard on his routes and that the DB would almost certainly bite on a double move, so he flagged down Clemson coordinator Chad Morris. "Don't use it now," Watkins said of the route that goes by Sluggo in the Clemson playbook and that calls for Watkins to run a slant—a sharp, short diagonal route—before planting hard and turning upfield. "Use it when we need it; blow the top off the stadium."
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Tigers leading by five and facing a crucial third-and-four from their own 38, Watkins lined up near the right sideline, alongside his coaches, and hollered to Morris, "Sluggo!" Morris made the call, and just as Watkins had predicted, Harris bit hard, stumbling as Watkins took that one perfect step before racing away.
The kid had found the operator's manual to his Ferrari. Quarterback Tajh Boyd hit Watkins in stride, and the receiver sprinted 62 yards for a touchdown that sealed Clemson's upset win.
In the following weeks Watkins began breaking down video of each opponent, compiling a list of plays that he believed would exploit the foe's tendencies. One month into his career, Watkins was one of the best receivers in college football.
AT THE CONCLUSION of a wild freshman season in which he ripped off 2,297 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns, Watkins joined Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson as the only true freshmen ever to make the Associated Press's All-America first team. It was also around this time that Watkins started, in his words, "reading the clippings." All the hype, "it can really mess with your mind," he says. And that's when the golden boy—the kid who'd made it out of the perilous Harlem Lakes area of Fort Myers without so much as a trip to the principal's office—finally slipped.
On May 4, 2012, Watkins stood behind his white 1999 Cadillac DeVille as Clemson police officers searched his car. After pulling Watkins over for allegedly hitting a curb, police say they smelled marijuana, and they asked him and his passenger, Amadou Dia, to step outside. Inside the car's trunk they found a bottle containing a marijuana-filled blunt, and on Watkins they recovered one pill each of Adderall and Vyvanase—ADHD medications for which he had no prescription. When the officers discovered a bag of marijuana on Dia, according to the report, Watkins immediately spoke up. "Sir! Sir! I've got some on me also."
Back in Fort Myers, James McMiller received a call from Clemson's coaches. "It was maybe two or three minutes after they told me that I saw Sammy's name on the SportsCenter ticker," he says. While Watkins's offense was relatively minor compared to some of the crimes committed regularly in Harlem Lakes, it was a gut punch for his mother, Nicole McMiller. Sammy was the kid who, in high school, stayed up late on his parents' date nights and called them if they weren't home on time. He was the one who offered up money from his summer job at the Boys & Girls Club to help the family.
The McMillers quickly realized, however, that their son would beat himself up over the arrest, and that would be worse than any punishment they could concoct. It broke his heart, Watkins says, to see kids asking about the incident on his Twitter and Instagram feeds. Eventually he would have to face Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and, even tougher, Swinney's three young sons, who refused to believe the story. "It's true," Watkins remembers telling them. "I did something bad."
A two-game suspension and court-ordered community service cost Watkins priceless workout and practice time, and a bout of dehydration further slowed his return to form. All of a sudden he was a less valuable part of Clemson's offense. He caught just 57 passes for 708 yards and three touchdowns that sophomore season, while teammate DeAndre Hopkins, a junior, picked up the slack: 82 catches, 1,405 yards and 18 TDs. Watkins showed only occasional glimpses of the player who had dominated as a freshman. Hopkins, meanwhile, declared for the NFL draft and was taken with the 27th pick.
Knowing there was only one way to return to form in 2013, Watkins was candid with his coaches: "Coach me hard; I don't want to be friends." At spring practice and in off-season workouts he barely said a word. He ignored praise, he says, because he didn't want his head filled with nonsense again. He focused instead on catching every ball and on improving his breaks.
"That was Sammy's most perfect year," says James McMiller. "He went and got his name back. He got his pride back."
That much was clear in Clemson's opener against No. 5 Georgia. The season wasn't six minutes old when Watkins burned Bulldogs defenders for a 77-yard touchdown. He carried that effort all the way through an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, in which he caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who spent 13 years at Oklahoma before joining the Tigers in 2012, can think of only one other player he's ever seen dominate as thoroughly as Watkins did last season. "He's the Adrian Peterson of wideouts," Venables says. Before declaring for next month's draft, Watkins broke Clemson's career records for catches (240), receiving yards (3,391) and 100-yard games (15). He followed that up by running an impressive 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
With a time like that, after a season like that, Watkins could have spent his remaining few months of freedom enjoying photo shoots and craft service spreads and massages (whose thoroughness, he reports, left his face numb). But while he understands that endorsements and branding improve the bottom line, he knows he can't reach the level of Pro Bowlers such as Graham and RG3 by getting wrapped up in all the ancillary stuff.
So Watkins returns to Clemson's soccer practice fields, drops his four cones and practices one step, again and again, until it's perfect. Once it is, he knows, he'll sell plenty of T-shirts. And it won't matter what number is on the back.
Receivers who don't perfect that single precise cut approach their breaks in the same way Fred Flintstone approaches a bowling lane.
The Perfect Route
Watkins has used a simple drill, with four cones in a straight line, spaced a yard apart, to hone his route-running.
He bursts out of his stance at cone No. 1 and takes two choppy strides toward the second cone, mimicking a start off the line of scrimmage.
At cone No. 2 he digs in his right foot hard, mimicking a cut, then repeats the process—two steps, cut, restart—through all four cones.
Watkins will spend an hour perfecting this one precise step, which can buy him as much an extra six inches of daylight.
The perfect cut is vital for a player whose unimpressive wingspan and vertical jump will be tested by tight man coverage.
Resident film expert Greg Bedard went to the tape on Watkins. To find out what kind of obstacles the receiver faces at the next level—let's start with his small wingspan—visit TheMMQB.com
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
IT'S IN THE BAG Around cones, through dummies—Watkins is spending the lead-up to the May 8 draft digging his heels into the turf, again and again.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ILLUSTRATION BY JASON LEE
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES
SUNSHINE STATEMENT Watkins's two-TD game against Ohio State in January completed a junior-year comeback: His 16 catches and 227 yards were Orange Bowl records.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ON TIRE)
TIRED? NAH Early NFL drafters are enticed by Watkins's 4.43 time in the 40 at the February combine (below), which was tied for seventh among receivers.
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (AT COMBINE)
[See caption above]