All eyes on Sammy Watkins this spring

Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins looks to rebound from a somewhat disappointing second season. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Clemson opens spring practice today with exceedingly high hopes -- perhaps higher than at any other point in the Dabo Swinney era.

Just about everybody expects the Tigers to be the preseason favorite to win the ACC, with Tajh Boyd returning at quarterback and Sammy Watkins returning at receiver. But there is no question that those hopes could largely depend on what we see out of Watkins himself, who was unable to follow up his spectacular freshman season with similar fireworks as a sophomore.

Some of what happened last season was out of his control. Watkins essentially played in only eight games thanks to a combination of suspension and injury, missing the first four. By the time he returned, DeAndre Hopkins was the headliner at receiver and Watkins never got himself into a good groove, finishing with just two 100-yard games on the year.

His Chick-Fil-A Bowl against LSU was over before it even began, after he took a monster hit on the first possession and hurt his leg.

Watkins is injury-free now and will no doubt look to be the leader at receiver with Hopkins gone off to the NFL. Not only are hopes high for the team as a whole; hopes are probably just as high for Watkins to dominate as an all-purpose player the way we all saw in 2011.

"His focus is outstanding," Swinney said on a recent conference call to discuss spring practice. "He has really grown. It’s just so much fun to see guys from where they were when they get here and to see them watch go through life and watch them mature and develop and change, not just physically but mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all those things. Sammy has grown into a very solid leader for this team. I don’t have any doubt he’s going to do everything he’s got to do to get himself ready to have a great season."

While his stats were not as eye-popping in 2012, it is important to remember that he was productive in the games he played. Perhaps we all got spoiled by his exploits. Consider that Watkins is one of at least four players in ACC history to catch at least 50 passes as a freshman and sophomore. (Hopkins, Duke receiver Conner Vernon and former Tiger Derrick Hamilton are the others).

And Watkins still averaged 5.7 receptions and 71 yards per game last year, just below his 5.9 catches and 87 yards a game of his freshman year.

"People talk about last year," Swinney said. "Last year is I think going to be a great experience for him looking back on his career and just helping him appreciate the opportunities he has. He did a lot of good things last year. He really only played in about seven and a half games or so. We had a couple games where we blow people out and don’t play him much. He missed four games right off the bat, he’s out for the bowl game. But he was very productive when he was on the field.

"No question that he helped Nuk have the kind of year he had because Sammy Watkins draws a lot of attention. He’s a guy that obviously can help us win at a high level and I think he’s going to do everything he’s got to do to lead the team and prepare himself mentally and physically to have a great junior year."

Watkins may command even more attention this year with Hopkins gone. How he responds will be a huge key to where the Tigers end up in 2013.