Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Clemson sophomore receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
• Typecasting. Hopkins wasn't tabbed as the "instant impact" guy in a recruiting class that originally included a more hyped receiver from just down Hwy. 76 — recruiting services weren't even certain what position Hopkins would play in college — but he wasn't supposed to be arriving in such desperate times: Even at Clemson, a program that seems whose own fan base seems to regard it as a perennial underachiever for going on two decades, there's a special place for the disappointment of the 2010 offense. Armed with a second-year starter at quarterback, two soon-to-be draft picks and six other returning starters, the Tigers limped in at 10th out of 12 teams in the low-octane ACC in total and scoring offense, leading the charge to Clemson's first losing record since 1998.
After a midseason injury to leading rusher Andre Ellington, the search for signs of life turned to Hopkins, a lanky (6-foot-2, 194 pounds) two-sport athlete whose height, agility and hops were far more valuable to the struggling offense than a competent, veteran secondary. By season's end, he'd emerged as arguably the only bright spot in the attack, and as the key building block in the transition to a hurry-up spread scheme under new offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
• Best-Case. Hopkins wasn't invisible over the first half of the season — he had at least one catch in six of the team's eight games in September and October, and was ACC Rookie of the Week after bringing in seven for 46 yards against North Carolina — but he was quiet: His only pre-Halloween touchdown came on a nine-yard gimme in the midst of a 58-21 rout over Presbyterian, and the longest of his 18 receptions covered 23 yards. There were glimpses of potential, however, and if there was a single moment when Hopkins began to emerge as more than a set of dreadlocks in the crowd, it came when he brought in a wild one-handed catch along the sideline in the first quarter of an eventual win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 23:
Almost from that point on, the kid was the go-to target, finishing as the Tigers' leading receiver in four of the last five games and for the season as a whole with big afternoons against N.C. State (5 catches for 80 yards), Florida State (8 for 106), South Carolina (7 for 124) and South Florida (8 for 94). Hopkins had at least one catch covering 30 yards in all of those games, most notably a 45-yard touchdown from Kyle Parker on the first possession against the Gamecocks that served as Clemson's only score of the game.
Hopkins' other two scores down the stretch, on the receiving end of a two-yard lob against Wake Forest and a 12-yard post against N.C. State, reinforced his potential as a red zone threat against man coverage:
Extrapolated over a full 13-game season, Hopkins' rates over the last five games would have been good enough to lead the ACC last year in receptions, tie for the lead in receptions covering at least 25 yards, finish a close second in total receiving yards and a close third in touchdowns — in other words, to make him a likely all-conference pick in a conference where the actual all-conference picks, Miami's Leonard Hankerson and Maryland's Torrey Smith, both went in the first three rounds of last month's NFL Draft.
• Worst-Case. In the first place, Hopkins hasn't put together a full season at an all-conference level: His consistency and, to a lesser extent, durability (he missed a 31-7 October win over Maryland with a vague "upper body muscular injury") are still very much in question. In the second, the Tigers are starting a relatively green quarterback in redshirt sophomore Tajh Boyd, who has played a little but never started a college game, operating in a new system that's more likely to emphasize spreading the ball around. (Say, to incoming five-star Sammy Watkins, for example.)
More importantly, Hopkins' emergence as the focal point of the passing game didn't do anything for the offense as a whole: The Tigers were 2-3 over the last five and managed just 322 yards per game, below their season average. In three of Hopkins biggest games, against N.C. State, Florida State and South Carolina, Clemson was held to 14, 13 and 7 points, respectively. If he is a star in the making, it's still uncertain that it matters beyond his own stat line.
|More Coming Attractions|
|• VONTAZE BURFICT, Arizona State|
|• MICHAEL DYER, Auburn|
|• KEENAN ALLEN, Cal|
|• MARCUS COKER, Iowa|
|• BRYCE BROWN, Kansas State|
|• TYRANN MATHIEU, LSU|
|• ETIENNE SABINO, Ohio State|
|• JAMARKUS McFARLAND, Oklahoma|
|• DEVIN TAYLOR, South Carolina|
|• DARRELL SCOTT, South Florida|
|• SHAYNE SKOV, Stanford|
|• NICK PERRY, USC|
|Listed alphabetically by school.|
• Fun Fact. Hopkins' much-anticipated appearance on the basketball roster in January didn't go over quite as spectacularly as his debut in pads. A three-time all-state selection who averaged 20 points and 8 assists per game as a senior at D.W. Daniel High, he barely saw the floor in the spring, appearing in seven games for a grand total of 10 minutes with one assist, one rebound, one steal, one block, two personal fouls, two turnovers and zero points on 0-for-2 shooting.
Hopkins isn't currently listed on the 2011-12 roster (though that could simply be because his scholarship is for football), and unless the hoop is in his soul, his career the court may be limited to a freshman experiment.
• What to expect in the fall. The most serious challenges for touches in the new, up-tempo offense could come from the hyped incoming recruiting class, which features two touted receivers (Sammy Watkins and Sharone Peake) who were ranked among Rivals' top 100 overall prospects in the entire 2011 class, and a third (Martavis Bryant) who was ranked in the top 100 last year before being diverted to prep school. There's also five-star running back Mike Bellamy, an all-purpose blip in the C.J. Spiller mold, and Andre Ellington, who was in the midst of a fine sophomore season last fall before it was cut short in October. Along with four other guys who averaged at least two touches per game last year on offense — all of them sophomores and juniors and this fall — there's no shortage of candidates for the ball on any given play.
But however brief, Hopkins has the most promising track record of the returnees, by far, and the best chance of sustaining his November quota of five-to-eight catches per game. If he gets there alongside a breakthrough season by one or two of the newcomers, the offense is automatically better for the foreseeable future.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.