- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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DeAndre Hopkins came to coach Dabo Swinney with an unusual request before the season began.
He asked to be baptized -- in front of his teammates and coaches -- after practice. "Never had that request before," Swinney recalled recently.
Hopkins grew up with a mother who preached the word of God to him every day. Though Hopkins was not a troublemaker or a bad boy, he began to feel more of a pull toward his faith. Finally this summer, Hopkins made the decision to commit himself to God full-time, and he wanted to do it in front of his football family.
It's the kind of thing that could be dicey because Clemson is a public school, but Hopkins asked for it. He wanted it done this way and sought permission.
He approached Swinney.
"We have a lake by the practice field and part of it is muddy water. I was like, 'Could we use one of the cold tubs that we use after practice?’” Hopkins recalled in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com.
Hopkins asked his preacher to come to practice the Thursday before the opener against Auburn. With his teammates gathered around, many looking on solemnly, Hopkins listened to his preacher deliver the Lord's Prayer. Hopkins recited the prayer, after his preacher, and was then dunked into the water.
Assistant coach Jeff Scott tweeted a photo of Hopkins sitting in the tub, still in his practice gear, because he was filled with overwhelming pride. And the story of Hopkins and his faith went viral.
What is more incredible, though, is what has unfolded through five games this season. Hopkins is having a career year following his religious rebirth. He had not connected the dots himself. When posed the question, he said, "I feel like things work in mysterious ways. I don’t know. I can’t answer that question."
The tangible answer is an easy one. With All-American Sammy Watkins out of the starting lineup for the first two games of the season, Hopkins took the lead. By no means was Hopkins a slouch heading into the season.
He had 72 receptions for 978 yards and five touchdowns last season, but Watkins overshadowed him and everybody else on the Tigers' offense. Hearing all the talk that Clemson would struggle without Watkins -- even with Watkins in his starting spot once again -- was a slap in the face to say the least.
“That’s just disrespectful to any great wide receiver, that people overlook you,” Hopkins said. “It’s disrespectful that people think they can play me man-on-man. But I‘ve proven they’re not going to be too successful when they do it.”
Hopkins already has three Clemson single-game records in five games. Last week against Boston College, he had 197 receiving yards on 11 receptions and was the team’s player of the game. In the opener against Auburn, Hopkins set the single-game receptions record with 13 catches. The following week, he tied the Clemson record for touchdown receptions in a game with three against Ball State. He had all three of those scores in the same quarter -- over an eight-minute span.
On the year, Hopkins has 42 receptions for 604 yards and six touchdowns to lead the ACC. He is averaging 120.8 yards per game to rank No. 8 in the nation. That is also on a Clemson record pace. No Clemson receiver has averaged more than 100 yards per game in a season. Watkins set the mark for average receiving yards per game last season with 93.8.
“He’s just a more complete player,” Swinney said. “He’s a more technical route-runner, which is huge. He wasn’t very polished when he came here and he just was a great athlete with great hands, but he’s really developed technically from a route-running standpoint, setting things up. He’s a much more physical player. He’s picked up probably 20-plus pounds since he came to Clemson and that’s helped him.”
What also has helped is dropping basketball, after doing both as a freshman. That has allowed him to truly concentrate on becoming an elite receiver.
“When I played both sports, I didn’t have any offseason at all,” Hopkins said. “I didn’t want to play basketball my sophomore season, so I had a full offseason of football. I basically just bought in and ate all the right things and treated my body like a temple and bought into the weight program we had here at Clemson. If you buy in, you’re going to see progress.”
He has bought in not only to football, but to his religion, and has happily reaped the results. But you will never see Hopkins brag on himself, or try to convert anyone.
Though he has won over some doubters on the field.