Sammy Watkins knew he suffered an inexcusable lapse in judgment by being pulled over and charged with marijuana possession and possession of a controlled substance in May of 2012.
Clemson’s star receiver also knew just whom he could turn to for help — his half-brother, Florida defensive back Jaylen Watkins.
“The first thing I did when I got back in Florida was we went to my grandparents’ house to talk,” Sammy said. “He really encouraged me and told me I would be all right.”
Though he was supportive, Jaylen was tough on his younger brother. He urged him to start taking more responsibility for his life and accept the consequences of his actions.
Sammy heeded the advice. Since serving a two-game suspension to open last season because of the incident, he has stayed on a straight and narrow path with Jaylen’s voice still ringing in his ears.
“He really encouraged me to put that behind me and focus on school and football,” Sammy said. “I did that.”
Much like Jaylen has served as a calming influence in Sammy’s life, he has helped steady a Florida defense that lost seven starters from a year ago.
In addition to becoming a more productive performer — he is third on the Gators through seven games with 38 tackles and tied for second with six pass break-ups — Watkins has helped several of the team’s younger players transition to the college game.
“He’s been a very vocal guy in a positive way,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s one of the team leaders of our football team. I don’t think there’s any question when you walk into that locker room the respect he has of his teammates and how he carries and handles himself. He’s a first-class young man.”
Watkins, who said of Florida’s young players, “I kind of take them under my wing and help them and guide them,” understands the necessary process in making a seamless transition.
Following the departures of Matt Elam and Josh Evans, Florida’s starting safeties last season, Muschamp chose to pluck from his excess of cornerback talent to fill the void. He chose Watkins and Cody Riggs, who have looked smooth at their new positions this season.
For Watkins, who is 6 feet and 187 pounds, the adjustment to playing safety was less drastic than one he was asked to make as a junior at Cape Coral High.
After playing receiver and cornerback during his first two seasons, Watkins was named the team’s starting quarterback by then-coach Mike Goebbel prior to his third year.
“When Jaylen moved to quarterback for us — talk about high football IQ — to make that kind of move successfully, he was very, very good,” Goebbel said. “It was a very good move for our team. He handled it with a lot of confidence, with a lot of poise.”
As a senior, Watkins passed for 1,230 yards and 13 touchdowns to help lead Cape Coral to an 11-1 record.
Sammy, who went to school at nearby South Fort Myers High, was not surprised to see Jaylen’s success. By then, he had seen his older brother shine on the field since the two first played against each other in a Pop Warner football league as kids.
“Growing up, we loved the game,” Sammy said. “We played the game. We were always great athletes. We kind of always had that mentality and that gift of playing football and being physical and making plays and being fast and dominant.”
Jaylen and Sammy still speak regularly — mostly offering encouragement to one another prior to each game. Although both Florida and No. 9 Clemson have suffered setbacks recently, the Watkins brothers have withstood more trying times together.
“I’m proud of him,” Jaylen said. “I’m pretty sure he’s proud of me over here.”