By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
Only a year removed from a dazzling freshman campaign in which he made 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins entered the 2012 season with lofty expectations. Yet the 2011 All-America regressed in his second year, both on and off the field.
Watkins was arrested on drug-related charges in May 2012 and was subsequently suspended for the Tigers' first two games. He then missed another game at Boston College with a stomach virus, and he played just one series in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU before leaving with an ankle injury. All things considered, it added up to a subpar sophomore effort.
Here's a comparison of Watkins' 2011 and 2012 receiving numbers:
• 2011: 82 catches for 1219 yards (14.9 average) and 12 TDs
• 2012: 57 catches for 708 yards (12.4 average) and three TDs
Watkins' 2012 stats naturally dropped off since he played in four fewer games than he did the season before, but, more tellingly, his production per game decreased. He registered 78.7 receiving yards per game as a sophomore (not counting his brief appearance against LSU), quite a dip from his 93.8 yards-per-game average as a freshman. Watkins surpassed the 100-yard receiving mark only twice in 2012 -- he did it five times as a freshman -- and reeled in just three touchdown passes, a quarter of his scoring haul from 2011.
Watkins also served a key role as a kick-return specialist during his freshman year, but even that production fell off last fall. In 2011, he racked up 826 kick return yards and one touchdown; he managed just 257 kick return yards and no scores on 13 attempts in 2012.
In Watkins' relative (and literal) absence, fellow wideout DeAndre Hopkins picked up the slack with 82 catches for 1,405 yards. Running back Andre Ellington also provided a major spark with 1,491 rushing yards. Watkins, tabbed as a headliner during the preseason, was relegated to a complimentary offensive role.
Apparently that sunk in. Reestablishing his status as a go-to playmaker was Watkins' primary focus during spring practice, and the stage is set for the junior to bounce back. Hopkins departed for the NFL, elevating Watkins to the No. 1 returning receiver on the roster. Meanwhile, quarterback Tajh Boyd has developed into a bona fide Heisman contender; the Tigers' proven passer should only bolster Watkins' production.
Watkins made his first statement during the team's spring game on April 13: He amassed 156 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps more notably, he's taking ownership of his off-field issues in order to sharpen his focus on the gridiron.
His talent is evident. If Watkins can successfully find his freshman form, he may very well become one of the top -- if not the top -- receivers in college football.STAPLES: ACC out to shed its perception as a weak conference