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The Watkins Effect

A big factor in 2014 is going to be how the Clemson offense works around the departure of the most dynamic WR in school history.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

All Clemson fans are hoping that we have truly reached "reload" versus "rebuild" status as a program.  That theory is going to be put to the test in 2014 as the electric Sammy Watkins now resides in Buffalo.  There is no doubt that the Tigers have some capable athletes on the perimeter, but it is also important to understand the impact Watkins had on the offense.  He greatly influenced defenses even when he didn't touch the ball, and his ability to go over the top also made defensive coordinators hesitate to bring safeties down too much.

The epitome of that effect was on full display against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.  The Buckeyes must have felt like Clemson did against FSU and NCST in 1998 when the secondary was virtually helpless in matching up.  If you play tight, Watkins' combination of strength and speed make a big play over the top an inevitability.  Watkins' dynamic freshman year was full of highlights where he beat guys down the field.  The scouting report on defending Clemson's passing game had to be completely re-written after the dismal 2010 campaign.  Nuk Hopkins was a year better for sure, but the presence of Watkins was the biggest factor.  Dwayne Allen suffered through scores of double coverage through the second half of 2010 as teams keyed on him, but in 2011 he began finding the middle of the field much more open.  Of course, a great deal of credit goes to The Chad's scheme, but Watkins was the straw that stirred the passing game 90% of the time.  OSU had really no choice but to back off Watkins at the LOS, and Morris was all too happy to use the quick game and allow Sammy to just eat up 7-12 yards a play.  Let's look at some plays this past season to show just how much Watkins effected things.

The long TD catch/run versus UGA: Clemson runs zone read play action on this, but the biggest factor on this play was UGA's Damien Swann immediately bailing as Watkins starts his route.  Darryl Smith was in at TE and was actually beaten pretty badly on the rush, though forcing him up the field would have been the play had the Tigers run the ball in the zone read here.  Tajh is able to get the ball out quickly to Watkins who had plenty of space thanks to Swann respecting the speed and not squatting.  Of course, Sammy's physical tools allowed him to take about a 7 yard pass to the house.

The game winner to Seckinger against UGA was set up via bringing Watkins back across the play as a reverse option.  The Dawg defense was forced to respect that so much that Seckinger easily slips into the void on the play side.  You wonder how that play would look with, say, Adam Humphries coming around on the reverse action instead of Watkins.  It might have been open, but I doubt as open as it was on this occasion.

Probably The Chad's favorite play to try to go over the top is when the Tigers go double play action, first faking the zone run with the back and then the end around to Watkins before looking to the 9 man on the deep post or go route.  The Tigers have hit on this one several times since 2011, and it is a safe bet Watkins was on the field running the end around action on each one.  You can check out the TD to Bryant against NCST as a good example of this one working well.

A wrinkle on this play just tore up the Syracuse defense, again thanks to them worrying big time about Watkins.  On the first big TD to Humphries, Boyd again fakes the zone run to McDowell as Sammy starts the end around motion.  However, Watkins then reverses out to make this into a triple option look and the 'Cuse defense totally bites downhill and allows Adam to easily breeze past for the deep touchdown.  This one is a nod to Paul Johnson but having a guy that scares the hell out of the defense on the orbit motion really opens things up.

Adam Humphries had a career day at Syracuse and probably should have taken Sammy out to dinner afterwards.  Adam's second long TD came with the Tigers in a trips right formation.  Sammy was in the short slot and just flexed out as a quick throw/pitch option while Humphries and Bryant X'd across each other to create a natural pick against the man coverage.  The Cuse had split safeties on this play but the safety on the play side let Humphries get behind him probably because his eyes were on Watkins.

Sammy's huge 99 yard TD in the Carrier Dome was a classic example of why teams had to think twice about bringing up the safeties.  Clemson runs play action and even with the corner giving an 8 yard cushion and bailing, Sammy gets on him quickly and then hits an extra gear to the ball before cruising to the house.  The safeties were way too tight to be of any help on this, probably something Boyd recognized pre-snap so this was an easy read.

Tiger fans grew mighty weary of the WR screen game during the Rob Spence era, but those plays look a lot better when you have a guy like Sammy to throw them to.  His physicality as a runner sets him apart as GT found out in the third quarter of the game this past fall.  Sammy gets a nice block initially and an incredibly athletic cut block downfield by Brandon Thomas, but GT was in position to stop this one for about 18 yards thanks to their safety beating his blocker.  Sammy simply accelerates and is prepared to run through any tackle attempt at that point.

One of the most interesting things to watch this fall is how UGA and others choose to defend Clemson early on now that Watkins is gone.  Guys like Scott and Hopper as well as Humphries project to take Sammy's spot.  Having effective downfield threats, at least one major one, is paramount to just about any offense.  When Chad Morris first got to Clemson before he even coached a game here, I saw him in Greenville and asked him just one question, "what was the biggest factor between 2009 and 2010?"  He didn't say C.J. Spiller, as great as C.J. was, he said, "Jacoby Ford."  I thought about that comment and you figure Andre Ellington, especially before his injury, was giving us close to Spiller's production as a running back.  Jamie Harper was also providing better backup production before Andre went down than what Clemson was getting the year before.  However, the lack of Ford's downfield explosiveness allowed defenses to really sit the safeties down and shrink the space Dwayne Allen could use.  There was no one on that team even close to being able to duplicate that kind of threat at the time.  I know the staff will be working hard to find a way to keep those defenses honest in the back in 2014.

Note: The plays mentioned in this post can all be seen on this highlight video:<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>