More mature Watkins ready for big year

Sammy Watkins wants to leave his past in the past. But to do that, he would ignore what has made him the player his Clemson teammates see out on the practice field today:

More intense.

More prepared.

More responsible.

More mature.

More well-rounded.

More confident.

More comfortable.

More than any version of Sammy Watkins they have ever seen.

"You can see the hunger in his eyes," quarterback Tajh Boyd says.

Indeed, the critical chain of events that began in May 2012 with his arrest on drug possession charges and ended last December with an ankle injury served to transform Watkins. He was no longer a freshman phenom; he was a slumping sophomore. He was no longer a sure thing; he was now a major question mark.

Nobody needed to tell Watkins that. He knew it for himself. He allowed the arrest, the two-game suspension and the ensuing illness that kept him sidelined for two more games to get the best of him. Watkins did not practice as hard. He admits he took plays off. He was not in great shape, either. The result: 57 receptions for 708 yards and three touchdowns. Not a bad season. But not up to what everybody expected -- Watkins included.

So the transformation began. Without the very adversity that bedeviled him, without the moments of doubt and frustration, Watkins might still be too immature to be a leader; too relaxed to work on the little things; too overconfident to study every single game tape and point out his own flaws in stance and mechanics.

He might also still have his family living back home in Fort Myers, Fla.

Nicole McMiller watched what happened to her son from too far away. As the violence in her neighborhood escalated, McMiller considered moving to be closer to Watkins. The arrest raised red flags. Watkins had never been in trouble previously. But the abdominal virus that sent Watkins to the emergency room and kept him out for two more games was the game-changer.

For the first time in her life, she was not there to tend to her sick son. She made a decision. It was time for her to move her family to South Carolina.

It was not easy, considering her mother and five siblings live in Fort Myers. But she needed to provide a safer environment for her children, and to help Watkins pull himself together. She left Fort Myers in February with her oldest daughter, wearing the clothes on her back and carrying a little bit of cash in her pocket. Her husband and two other children stayed behind.

She had no job, nor a place to live. When she arrived, the family of Clemson safety Travis Blanks allowed her to stay in their home. Several weeks later, McMiller found a job in the billing department at a local hospital. She found a place to live in Seneca, about 20 minutes from the Clemson campus.

Then she went back home to Fort Myers, packed up, and crowded into the small cab of a Penske truck with her husband and youngest daughter -- towing their car from behind -- and drove 14 hours back to South Carolina. Another son stayed behind with McMiller's mom.

The McMillers were home. For the first family meal together, on Easter Sunday, the family had a seafood feast, talked and watched movies.

“I could see a big difference in him with us just being there,” McMiller said in a phone interview. “Sammy went through a lot, and he didn’t have the support he needed. I know he's happier and he's more focused now. He's ready to roll. I can see the glow on his face. He's so much more confident, so much more ready for whatever comes his way. He's ready to dominate everything he's doing.”

Finally, Watkins could feel at home, too -- some three years after arriving at Clemson.

“When I had that little bump in the road, I think it was time I needed them down here,” Watkins said in a recent phone interview. “Every son wants his mom down here. I missed them, and my family missed me. So they came down, which helped me a lot just being around them every day. I can go home any time. I went home the other night, had a great meal with them. It’s been great.”

Watkins rededicated himself in the offseason. He got into better shape, and focused on better nutrition, hydration and taking care of his body. His body fat melted away. He also spent more time in the film room, evaluating game tape from last season.

He saw a much slower player, somebody who was not pushing off the ball. He saw a player who was not alert, who was out of shape, a player who gave away whether he was getting the ball or not with his stance.

This offseason, Watkins has worked on perfecting his route running, and he is in such good shape he says he wants to run 100 plays per game. Whatever his team needs to win.

“I'm excited for him,” Boyd says. “I think he's going to break out and have a stellar season. Just talking to him, he's so excited and pumped up for this year."

Watkins also will finally have a cheering section at every home game. Before moving to South Carolina, McMiller had been to only a handful of games. Now, she will be at every home game at the very least -- and already has a special shirt picked out for the opener against Georgia.

Life in South Carolina is slower than it was in Florida, but also a lot quieter. McMiller doesn’t have to worry about telling her youngest daughter how to roll out of bed to avoid gunshots in the neighborhood. Her husband and oldest daughter have found jobs. After so much uncertainty six months ago, the family has settled in for a fresh start.

So, too, has Watkins. Rather than weaken him, his turbulent 2012 season brought him newfound maturity along with his family, serving to strengthen him. The convenient question now is whether the Tigers will get the Watkins of old this season.

They won’t. They have the new Sammy Watkins.

The world has not seen him just yet.