Watkins was a freshman sensation soon after arriving on campus.
He had 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns to become an All-American in 2011 and looked ready to break even bigger the following season. But a drug arrest in May 2012 led to a two-game suspension to start the season. He was sick and missed a trip to Boston College, then lasted only one play against LSU in the bowl game before getting hurt.
Watkins' production dropped as quarterback Tajh Boyd focused more on sure-handed Hopkins, who set an ACC mark last fall with 18 touchdown catches.
When Hopkins left for the pros, Watkins understood he'd have to work harder to regain his edge and Boyd's trust.
He worked in the weight room and looks a more chiseled 205 pounds. He and Boyd worked together during the offseason to rebuild a connection that was more dormant that dead.
Boyd said working with Watkins gave him a chance to "understand his mentality and his approach to the game."
"He goes out there and tries to perform at a high level all the time," Boyd said. "He's been doing that a lot lately."
Virginia coach Mike London said Clemson's offense measures up well with No. 2 Oregon, who beat the Cavaliers 59-10 earlier this season.
The Tigers have a "very dynamic, exciting offense," London said. "They capitalize on the vertical speed that they have with Watkins and some other players."
Watkins is closing in on a pair of school marks: He 36 receptions to break Aaron Kelley's Clemson record of 232 catches and 281 yards receiving to surpass his pal Hopkins who leads that career category with 3,020.
"Tajh has been doing a great job communicating with me and getting me the ball," Watkins said. "The coaches see that I'm healthy, I can play and they're targeting me more. And I can't wait to play Virginia."