DeAndre Hopkins. Sammy Watkins. Martavis Bryant. Jaron Brown.
Hopper, a former Phillip O. Berry Academy standout, wants to take his place in the long line of Clemson wide receivers who have flourished recently in the NFL.
If Hopper makes it to the league, his spot in Clemson’s listings of NFL players will come with an asterisk.
Because Hopper isn’t at Clemson anymore.
Hopper, a Charlotte native and two-sport start at Berry, left school in a huff last February following nearly four years of up-and-down play, off-the-field issues and a dispute over playing time.
Hopper didn’t bother stopping by his apartment to collect his clothes, television or ACC championship ring before bolting back to Charlotte.
Hopper spent the past year working in an Uptown barbershop, working out and keeping tabs on his former teammates. He watched Clemson’s victory over Alabama in the national championship game at a friend’s house in the University area.
Hopper says he’s in a much different place than he was a year ago.
He has become a father, taken responsibility for some of his immature decisions in college and reached out to Clemson coaches to try to repair any bridges he might have burned with his abrupt exit.
Now Hopper wants back in the game.
But will an NFL team take a chance on him?
Just one of the guys
Hopper was ranked among the nation’s top 20 wide receiver prospects by every major recruiting service after playing wideout and running back at Berry, where he rushed for more than 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns.
What Hopper lacked in size (6-foot, 161 pounds) in high school, he made up for with speed. Hopper finished third in the state in the 100-meter dash as a junior – two spots ahead of Tarboro’s Todd Gurley, now with the Los Angeles Rams, and two-tenths of a second behind Berry teammate Kedrick Davis, a Charlotte 49ers defensive back who broke the 2-A record in the 100 that day.
Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Tennessee and Miami were interested in Hopper, but he signed with Clemson – a short trip down I-85 from Charlotte.
Too short, it turned out.
When Hopper stepped on campus in 2012, the Tigers’ receiving corps featured two future first-round picks in Hopkins and Watson, a fourth-rounder (Bryant) and three other wideouts currently on NFL rosters (Brown, Charone Peake and Adam Humphries).
Hopper was happy to redshirt as a freshman.
“My first year was my most important year to me because I learned so much, just from watching those guys,” Hopper said this week. “All of those guys are making an immediate impact as soon as they get to the league.”
A wayward start
Hopper might have learned more had he stuck around Clemson more often.
But he was always up for a good road trip – home to Charlotte, to N.C. A&T’s homecoming, to Chapel Hill to visit friends such as North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams.
“He was all over,” said Natosha Stewart, Hopper’s mother.
Getting back to campus – on time – proved more difficult.
“Germone still had a set of friends that were not on the same path,” Stewart said. “They can pick you up. But when it’s time for you to get back to Clemson for a team meeting at 6 p.m. on Sunday, they don’t have no gas.”
“My first two years there,” Hopper said, “every chance I got I tried to come home.”
Home was off Mount Holly-Huntersville Road, where Stewart raised two boys as a single mother after Germone’s father, Gerald Hopper, was sentenced to more than 20 years for an 1995 armed robbery of Hooters on Independence Boulevard.
Hopper, who was born in 1993, has seen his dad twice since then – both times as a visitor to a federal prison.
But most Sundays at 6 p.m., Hopper gets a call from an unknown number – his dad checking in from Estill (S.C.) Correctional Institution. The two talk for 15 minutes before the call automatically cuts off.
“Recently he’s been talking a lot about football because he wanted to follow up or whatever, just to tell his boys in (prison),” Hopper said. “Some of our conversations just wander off into a little bit of everything, just talking about life, period.”
Stewart has worked as a hairstylist for 23 years and bought a home when she was 29.
Although Hopper didn’t have his dad around, several men served as strong influences, including former Clemson and Carolina Panthers player Brentson Buckner, who attended the same church.
Jermaine Johnson, co-owner of the No Grease barbershops, took an interest in Hopper after he began cutting his hair when Hopper was 2.
Stewart worked long hours to provide for her boys, whose schedules she tried to keep full.
“With males, that idle time is the devil’s playground,” Stewart said. “If it’s not football season, then you’re training. If it’s not track season, then you’re training. I always just tried to keep him occupied.”
Idle time occasionally got the best of Hopper at Clemson.
Mixed results at Clemson
After redshirting his first year, Hopper got off to a fast start in 2013.
He was the ACC’s Rookie of the Week after catching six passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns in a 52-13 victory over S.C. State in the second game of the season. But a month later Hopper was suspended for the Boston College game for violating the school’s social media policy.
It was the first of two suspensions for Hopper, who says he was disciplined in the spring of 2015 for failing to fulfill his study hall hours. Those transgressions – combined with his penchant for jetting on out-of-town excursions – prompted Clemson coaches to question Hopper’s commitment.
During two-hour phone calls with Dabo Swinney, Stewart said the Tigers coach told her: “I don’t feel like Germone’s all-in.”
Stewart talked to her son about being more accountable and doing more than the bare minimum.
“They’ve given you a scholarship that’s worth thousands of dollars. You have a responsibility to your coaches, to your university, to yourself. And you’re not doing that,” Stewart says she told him. “I’d say, ‘You’d better be glad he’s a loving coach because on some teams you would be gone.’”
Hopper was still part of the program, although he never established a prominent role.
He would show glimpses of the speed and playmaking ability that made him a four-star recruit.
Hopper had a pair of 100-yard receiving games – against North Carolina in 2014 and against Wake Forest in 2015. In both games he topped the century mark on only three catches, averaging at least 40 yards per reception.
While the Tigers were marching toward a national championship showdown (Part I) with Alabama during the 2015 season, Hopper was sliding further down the depth chart.
In Clemson’s three postseason games, beginning with the ACC title game in Charlotte, Hopper was targeted a total of three times and didn’t have a catch.
“Coming from being a top athlete and then going into a situation where you’re not getting as much exposure as you usually were getting, it was just immaturity and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Hopper said. “I think that fueled a lot of my actions. But I learned from it and I’m ready to move on.”
‘I just started to break down’
Even before the Tigers’ 45-40 loss to Alabama in Phoenix, Stewart said she knew her son wasn’t happy.
Hopper had a lot on his plate – the pending birth of his daughter, Caleigh, who was born in Charlotte last May, his dwindling playing time and an eroding relationship with receivers coach Jeff Scott.
“It really was some personal issues that I was going through,” Hopper said. “I just started to break down a little.”
Hopper went to see Scott last February and told him he was considering transferring. According to Stewart, Scott didn’t try to change his mind. (Scott was not available for an interview this week.)
Hopper hitched a ride back to Charlotte, leaving all of his personal belongings behind at his apartment.
“That was the hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make,” he said. “I’ve never had a moment like that before, just being in that moment and not know how to deal with it.”
An uncertain start
Because he withdrew without a degree, Hopper wasn’t able to go to another Division I school as a graduate transfer. He considered Division II Winston-Salem State, but instead stayed in Charlotte.
He bounced from one friend’s house to another in an arrangement his mother referred to as being homeless.
Tigers assistant coach Danny Pearman went to Hopper’s apartment in Clemson with a U-Haul, collected his things and drove them to Charlotte.
Johnson offered Hopper a job answering the phone and logging appointments at his barbershop on Trade Street. Johnson made Hopper wear a tie to work and didn’t pay him much.
“I’ve known Germone since he was 2-years old and all he’s known is football. And not to be in a position to play sports, he was so humbled,” Johnson said.
Stewart agreed the three months Hopper worked in the barbershop were an eye-opener.
“He saw how $10 an hour will not go anywhere,” she said. “I’m that Mom, you’re not in school, I don’t pay phone bills. I will feed you. He understands the rubber just hit the road, bro.”
‘I could’ve contributed’
Before Clemson’s rematch with Alabama last month, Hopper sent letters to Swinney and Scott thanking them for his opportunity at Clemson and wishing them luck against the Crimson Tide.
Hopper said he was happy to see the Tigers win it all, adding he didn’t have any pangs of regret when wide receiver Mike Williams made several big catches down the stretch.
“I didn’t have a moment where I said that could’ve been me,” he said. “But I knew that I could’ve contributed in that game.”
Hopper, 23, has been working out and running routes several days a week at West Charlotte High. During a throwing session this week, Hopper wore his Clemson-issued, orange-and-white gloves and carried his gear in a Tigers’ backpack.
He pulled up to his Nike shirt to reveal a more permanent reminder of his time with the Tigers – a “Clemson” tattoo in cursive script.
Hopper says he no longer blames Scott for not getting him on the field more.
“I will take full responsibility because most of it was me having discipline problems,” he said. “We didn’t have a clear understanding and sometimes it would just be tension between us.”
Hopper has gone to Clemson the past two weeks to run routes in the Tigers’ indoor facility. Hopper was not invited to next week’s scouting combine in Indianapolis, but plans to participate in Clemson’s pro day in March.
A chance to impress
Scouts will pack the indoor facility to watch quarterback Deshaun Watson and Williams, one of the top wideouts in the draft and a projected first-rounder.
Hopper just hopes to catch as many passes as he can – as well as the attention of the scouts.
Leo Jackson, a Charlotte sports agent who’s working with Hopper, said he has heard from several teams who didn’t realize Hopper was in this year’s draft. Jackson said a handful of other teams have shown interest in Hopper, whom Jackson views as a late-round prospect.
Hopper will have to explain to scouts the reasons for his suspensions and why he gave up his last year of college football.
Hopper will tell them he never failed a drug test and didn’t have any legal issues, other than the $1,500 in parking tickets his mom says he ran up.
Johnson, the barbershop owner and operator, was not pleased when Hopper left Clemson last year.
But he says he saw a more mature and focused Hopper in recent months, including the time he spent working at No Grease.
“In my culture and my area, there’s a lot of good kids,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of good kids who are locked up.
“This is a great kid.”