The feeling of loss hit Bruce Miller almost immediately. After quarterback Deshaun Watson officially graduated from Gainesville (Ga.) High in December, Miller, the longtime coach of the Red Elephants -- who play approximately 50 miles northeast of Atlanta -- knew just how much his team was now without. All it took was a cursory glance at the numbers.
“When he walked out of the school, I told somebody, ‘We just graduated 17,000 yards of offense and 200 touchdowns,’” Miller said. “I said, ‘I don’t think that can be replaced.’”
While Miller must replace Watson’s high school production, Watson will face his own challenges as a freshman at Clemson. An early enrollee, he is the headliner of the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class and should compete immediately to replace Tajh Boyd, the school’s NFL-bound record-setting passer. That’s a lot to ask, but not every quarterback is as accomplished as the former Gainesville star.
Watson is perhaps the most prolific prep passer in Georgia history. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder was a stat-stuffer during his high school career, running and throwing for 17,134 yards of offense and 218 total touchdowns (155 passing). He was the state’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns by the end of his junior season. He also led the Red Elephants to three region titles and a Georgia 5A state championship. Watson, like Boyd, knows how to win, and Rivals.com rated him as the country’s No. 1 dual-threat prospect in the class of 2014.
“I’ve been in this business 40 years,” Miller said, “and I’ve never seen [a player] come through like him. I’ve coached against some great ones and I’ve coached some good ones, but he’s just got it. I don’t know what it is.”
It didn’t take long for Watson to catch the eye of Gainesville coaches. He was a backup quarterback and linebacker in middle school, but assumed full-time passing duties as an eighth grader, when he led his team to an undefeated season. By the time he’d climbed to the varsity level, he displayed a better understanding of the game’s fundamentals than many upperclassmen. “He could look at film and see things that a ninth grader or middle schooler would never see,” Miller said.
The coach didn’t use Watson’s legs much as a freshman, but the quarterback quickly developed as a runner. In addition to surpassing 3,200 yards through the air as a sophomore in 2011, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. When Gainesville won the state title the next season, Watson ran and threw for more than 5,700 yards of offense and had a hand in 64 total touchdowns. Were it not for a strained MCL that knocked him briefly out of his final high school game -- a 20-14 state semifinal loss to Tucker High in December -- he would have never missed a snap in his Gainesville career.
The question is whether Watson can do the same things on Saturday afternoons that he did on Friday nights. Freshmen have taken college football by storm in recent seasons, with back-to-back Heisman Trophy-winning campaigns from Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel. But while Winston and Manziel redshirted before making their first starts, Watson can contribute immediately.
No less an authority on Clemson quarterbacks than Boyd likes what he sees from Watson.
“The guy is like a little brother to me, a really humble kid, super intelligent, and I love the personality he has," Boyd told reporters about Watson last fall. "It’s more than football. I’m excited about the kind of person Clemson has coming in.”
Of all the players that Tigers coach Dabo Swinney will have to replace in 2014, Boyd will be the most difficult. The quarterback was a two-time All-ACC selection and threw for 11,904 yards and a conference-record 107 touchdowns during his career in Death Valley. Watson won’t be anointed as the starter from day one; he’ll join Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly in a competition for the job in spring practice. Stoudt, a rising senior, has played behind Boyd for three seasons, while Kelly, a redshirt sophomore, was a highly touted dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school. Becoming the next Tajh Boyd will be a tall task for whoever sits atop the depth chart next fall.
“He's the winningest quarterback in the history of the school,” Swinney said of Boyd after Clemson’s Orange Bowl win over Ohio State on Jan. 3. “He did it in three years. He set the standard for every quarterback that's come through Clemson.”
Watson’s sights have been set on the Tigers since he originally committed to Clemson on Feb. 1, 2012. He fielded all the usual offers for a top-rated prep quarterback, from the likes of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Georgia. But Watson preferred the idea of staying close to home with a team that didn’t sign another quarterback in its ‘13 class.
Of course, other schools made last-ditch efforts to sway Watson’s decision. Miller said that several coaches began coming to Gainesville again at the end of Watson’s senior year. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was one of the hottest names on the coaching market, and other programs used Morris’ potential departure to their advantage. After all, Morris, who was Watson’s primary recruiter, was a major part of the quarterback’s decision to commit to the Tigers.
But one final talk with the Clemson coaches confirmed Watson in his conviction to play for the Tigers.
“He went back up and had a big talk with coach Swinney and coach Morris and saw how strong that commitment was,” Miller said. “He came back and said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I need to [take more visits].’ And he decided not to.”
The next era of Clemson football has already begun. Watson is one of six early enrollees already on campus. A sprained knee kept him out of the Under Armour All-America Game earlier this month, but he’s expected to be ready to go when spring practice begins on March 6.
Miller said that the injury will be Watson’s only roadblock to becoming the Tigers’ next big thing, and the coach knows talent. Miller has been at Gainesville for 12 years, and has seen other players move on to bigger and better things, including Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson. But the stars are aligned for Watson to develop into Gainesville’s most high-profile product. He has arrived at Clemson at just the right time to step into the spotlight. If the freshman becomes the heir to Boyd, at least one person won’t be surprised.
“I hope I see another one like him,” Miller said, “but I don’t think I will.” Rivals Spotlight: Watch highlights from Deshaun Watson's senior season