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Secondary eager for second chance

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The text messages and emails have trickled in slowly, but Nick Waisome already understands the magnitude of what he's up against.

Former coaches, friends, family -- they all want to know about Sammy Watkins.

"It's, 'Hey, Sammy Watkins. Hey, Clemson,'" Waisome said. "People can hype it up, and that can actually hinder me, so I just try to keep a level head and enter the game like every other game."

That's no simple task before what could be Florida State's biggest game of the season, and even Waisome's coach is stoking the fires.

A year ago, Watkins took the country by storm, racking up 1,219 yards as a freshman, including seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Florida State. It was enough for Jimbo Fisher to dub Watkins the most impressive freshman since Herschel Walker.

"I can't think of a freshman that had that kind of impact in the return game, running, sweeps, whatever," Fisher said. "He's just a phenomenal player."

Waisome, on the other hand, is here by default.

It's not that he didn't arrive at Florida State with his own impressive pedigree, but his playing time as a freshman was minimal, and his role as the starting cornerback this season came only after Greg Reid was dismissed from the program last month. Through the first three games, Waisome has made three tackles and broken up one pass while splitting time with freshman Ronald Darby.

So as Florida State's dominant defense gets set for its showdown with Clemson's high-octane offense, it's not hard to see why the matchup of the inexperienced corner versus the All-American wide receiver is viewed as a potential boon for the Tigers.

"I think about it like in high school," Waisome said. "You see a guy that's, oh, the No. 1 receiver. You're like, 'Oh, man, I want to go out there and go against him.' It's just like that."

That's the type of confidence Waisome will need, according to his counterpart in the Seminoles' backfield.

A year ago, Xavier Rhodes was on the field for a bulk of Watkins' big catches, though he was usually matched up against Clemson's other dynamic receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.

It was far from a highlight-reel game for any of the Florida State defensive backs, but Rhodes hasn't given it much thought this week. To do so would be to recognize failure, and that's not part of his preparation. His goal -- and his advice to Waisome and Darby -- is to take the field Saturday with no doubts about his ability to stifle Clemson's passing attack.

"If you stand there and dwell on it and think about it, you're going to second-guess yourself," Rhodes said. "When you second-guess yourself, you're going to lose confidence. Once you lose confidence, you're going to lose."

That's the mental game. From a physical standpoint, however, both Watkins and Hopkins present significant challenges. Both receivers offer blazing speed, but Watkins adds another wrinkle.

"He's always physical when he's running his routes," Rhodes said. "He'll push off on you, pull on you, he's just always trying to keep his hands on you, mess you up and trip you up. Hopkins will just run his route and run past you."

Waisome said the FSU corners will spend more time this week going against their team's own physical receivers, such as Rodney Smith and Kelvin Benjamin, in preparation for Saturday's matchup. Rhodes said he tries to play physical with Watkins, too, hoping it will get into the receiver's head.

Still, defending Watkins and Hopkins is a tall task for a secondary that hasn't been particularly tested through three games.

Opposing teams have managed to complete just 40 percent of their passes against FSU this season, and they've tallied just 70 yards passing per game -- the best mark in the country. But the dirty work has largely been done up front, where Florida State's defensive line has routinely forced early throws and flushed quarterbacks out of the pocket.

That's where the advantage turns for Florida State, Waisome said. Covering Watkins and Hopkins gets much easier if Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd doesn't have time to throw.

"That's the thing, too; we have such a great D-line," Waisome said. "It's going to be a dogfight. It's going to be something that people are just going to have to watch."

That shouldn't be a concern. Amid the hype of a top-10 matchup and the hoopla of a nationally televised prime-time game, the matchups between Clemson's receivers and Florida State's defensive backs will earn top billing, and that's just the way they want it.

"I like this type of stuff," Waisome said. "I just want to go do it."