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Former South Fort Myers standout Sammy Watkins led the nation in reception yards per game, all-purpose yards and touchdowns for freshmen in 2011 before a tumultuous season last year.
Former South Fort Myers standout Sammy Watkins led the nation in reception yards per game, all-purpose yards and touchdowns for freshmen in 2011 before a tumultuous season last year. / the news-press sports bureau
South grad and Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins catches a pass during Wednesday's practice. / The news-press sports bureau

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The News-Press will feature Southwest Florida players projected to have a major role on their teams during the 2013 college football season.

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This offseason, Clemson junior receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant spent several hours discussing their goals.

“The whole summer actually, we were hanging out a little bit and talking about it,” Bryant said. “We’d go out to the lake and just chill and just talk.”

They discussed specific objectives for this season but rarely mentioned statistics. Their plan is to ensure that aggressive corners and double coverage are their only obstacles.

Bryant and Watkins, a South Fort Myers High graduate, watched their teammates defeat LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl without them.

Watkins watched from the sideline after he was injured on the first play from scrimmage. Bryant watched from home. He was suspended for the bowl after failing to meet the team’s academic standards.

When that subject surfaced this summer, Watkins transformed from cohort to counselor, and those lakefront chats became motivational lectures.

“I just told him, ‘Man, you’ve got to be different. Everybody’s watching us, and we’re going to need you big time,’ ” Watkins said. “‘You’ve got to go to class. You’ve got to be respectful, and everything else will play out on the field.’ ”

That could be a difficult challenge to accept from a peer, but Bryant understood that Watkins never spoke in judgment.

He spoke from experience.

Watkins endured his own adversity last year. An arrest for misdemeanor possession in May yielded a two-game suspension in September. He missed another game because of illness.

Watkins admitted he mismanaged the adversity and his play and attitude suffered. “It just made me step up and mature,” Watkins said. “I just realized that I’m going to make mistakes and I’m also going to face some adversity. It just made me realize I’ve got to step up and be a leader, because I am being watched by everybody.”

Watkins’ talent does not require him to be a role model. Yet he asserted that rejecting the chance to use his hardships to influence and benefit others would be selfish.

“It made him realize he’s got a wonderful opportunity,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “It’s a privilege to do what he does. It’s not a right.”

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Watkins revealed his effusive courage earlier this summer.

“Y’all heard him. He came out with his preseason comments,” Swinney said, alluding to an interview with The Greenville News in June during which Watkins asserted Clemson should “beat the mess out of” No. 5 Georgia in the season opener.

In that interview, Watkins also crowned himself as the top receiver in the nation, predicted he would break former teammate DeAndre Hopkins’ records from last season and begged defensive backs to press him.

“I guess he’s ready,” Swinney said with a laugh. “He’d better be ready. He’s got to go walk the walk now, doesn’t he?”

Watkins conceded Tuesday that he regretted his word choice, but he did not recant his assertions.

The bold comments were not intended to rouse reporters, coaches and cornerbacks. They are not the ones to whom Watkins is most accountable.

Those comments were for Watkins’ teammates, especially his fellow wide receivers.

They have heard the detractors who doubt if Clemson can compensate for the departures of Hopkins, Jaron Brown and tight end Brandon Ford.

They understood that Watkins did not speak from arrogance. He spoke from confidence, substantiated through his tireless workout habits, his disciplined nutrition regimen and his renewed commitment as a leader.

“I could tell in his approach, he became more serious about it,” Bryant said. “He embraced it very well. He supports everybody. He’s the captain of the receivers, and we’ve got his back.”

“It’s just a demeanor thing,” said junior defensive tackle Josh Watson. “You can tell by the way he walks. Guys listen to everything he says.”

Watkins caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011. During the tumultuous 2012, his production dropped more than 30 percent.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Watkins said. “This year is going be a different year, with my focus and with my team and how my coaches push me and how I’m approaching this fall.”

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