Deshaun Watson simply couldn’t catch a break in 2014. Three weeks after taking over the starting quarterback job in Clemson’s overtime loss to Florida State on Sept. 20, the true freshman broke his right hand in a win over Louisville on Oct. 11. He returned to action after missing three games but sprained his knee in a 28-6 loss at Georgia Tech on Nov. 15 and later tore his ACL in practice.
Still, Watson’s injury-prone campaign didn’t overshadow his immense potential. He completed 67.9% of his passes for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Watson also set a single-season school record with a 188.6 passer rating. As long as he can stay healthy, the former five-star prospect is clearly the Tigers’ quarterback of the future.
SI.com caught up with Watson this spring to discuss his recovery, his reaction to losing offensive coordinator Chad Morris, his Netflix habits and more.
SI: How limited have you been this spring? And how would you describe your rehab so far?
Deshaun Watson: I haven’t been on the field. I’ve been rehabbing and just kind of watching from a distance with coach [Dabo] Swinney, just seeing things from a coach’s point of view. But it’s really good. I’m about four months out.
SI: If you had to put a percentage on your knee, how healthy are you?
DW: Honestly, I’m not even sure. It’s hard for me to translate where I’m at.
SI: Are you still on track to be healthy for your opener against Wofford on Sept. 5?
DW: Oh yeah, of course.
SI: When you hurt your knee at Georgia Tech, you’d already missed three games with a broken hand. What went through your mind at the moment of the injury?
DW: Jeez, just thinking that far back in time—I just wanted to go back out there and play. But they said I was done for the game, so I just really tried to cheer my teammates on and hope we’d still pull out the victory. We didn’t, but from then on I was just concerned about my knee and making sure to take care of myself.
SI: Did you ever have a moment where you worried about your future in football?
DW: Never. I never worried about that because I know injuries are just part of the game. People have gone through ACL and knee problems before and come back stronger than before with productive seasons. I never doubted myself, and I want to come back even better than I was before.
SI: What have you been doing this spring while you can’t practice?
DW: I want to be out there with my teammates. But I’m still around. They see me around, and I encourage everyone and try to be that leader. I’m still out there with those guys and in the film room. I’m just not physically practicing yet.
SI: You were a four-year starter at Gainesville (Ga.) High. You also won a state championship there. How important was Gainesville to your development?
DW: It was great. The coaches from there are phenomenal, and they prepare you. From the strength and conditioning coaches to the teachers, just the whole school prepares you for life at the next level. I would encourage anyone to go Gainesville. The things they do and how they work, it’s phenomenal.
SI: Gainesville has produced a number of standout players in recent years. One is former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who led the Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff last year. Do you have a relationship with Blake?
DW: I’ve known Blake ever since he got to Gainesville. We have a great relationship, and we talk whenever we get the chance. Just having that relationship and knowing a guy who has the chance to play in the NFL is great. And to get experience from him about the SEC, that’s pretty good.
SI: What kind of advice has Blake given you?
DW: He has just said to keep doing what I’m doing and make sure never to be complacent.
SI: You went from one small town in Gainesville to another in Clemson. How would you describe Gainesville to an outsider?
DW: It’s very laid-back and very homey. Everyone is very nice. Honestly, it’s a lot like Clemson, and that’s why I picked Clemson because they’re pretty similar. They’ve both got the lake, great people around and different things you can do.
SI: When you were first getting into football, were there any college or NFL quarterbacks you particularly admired?
DW: I watched a lot of Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees. Those are the main ones that pop into my head. Growing up and watching those guys and how they play to win, they’re pretty special.
SI: Your old offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, helped recruit you, and he left after last season to become the head coach at SMU. Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott are now Clemson's co-offensive coordinators. How have things changed on offense?
DW: There’s not a big difference at all. It’s just not having [Morris] in our presence, that’s probably the only difference. But tempo, throwing the ball, running the ball, it’s all still there. Nothing’s changed, and Swinney is very good with that. He wants to run that spread offense and be fast. That’s what he wants to do, so nothing’s going to change just because someone else leaves.
SI: You return seven starters from an offense that averaged 30.8 points per game in 2014. Can you be better than last year?
DW: We can be as good as we want to be. We control that. It just depends on the attitude and the leadership we have. We just can’t be complacent. We have to come together, and that’s what we’re going to do.
SI: Swinney talks a lot about your leadership on this team. How would you describe your relationship with him?
DW: It’s very good. We have a close relationship. Being the QB of any program, you have to have a close relationship with the head coach. We have a great time and enjoy ourselves. We just prepare each day to get better and take this program to a high level.
SI: Swinney has said you were quick to earn the respect of your teammates, even as a true freshman. Is that hard to do?
DW: It can be. You just have to approach it a certain way. You can’t come in too fast and take over the game. You just have to let it unfold by itself. I trust in all the upperclassmen. From then on, it took care of itself.
SI: What do you like to do when you aren’t playing football?
DW: Watch movies. I used to play basketball, but I can’t now [because of my knee injury]. I’d just shoot around, go on the lake, hang out with teammates and family.
SI: Favorite movie?
DW: I would probably say all three Friday movies, with Ice Cube and Chris Rock.
SI: Are you a Netflix guy? Do you have any favorite shows?
DW: I’m not on it too much, but I’ll get on there and watch random movies. I’m mostly just a movie guy. My girlfriend is the big show-watcher.
SI: You tweeted a lot about Duke in the NCAA tournament. Are you a Duke fan?
DW: Yeah, I always grew up a Duke basketball fan. I love Coach K. I wanted Duke to win it all. Hopefully they can do it again next year.
SI: Did you pick Duke to win the title in your bracket? Even over Kentucky?
DW: I picked Duke. I had Duke and Kentucky in the championship game, but Wisconsin beat Kentucky, so I messed up my bracket on that part. But it was a great game because Duke pulled it out.
SI: Is Coach K the best basketball coach in the country?
DW: I think so. Him and [Kentucky coach John] Calipari.
DW: [laughs] Honestly, it’s hard to say. Both of those guys are winners and great guys. Being a quarterback, I enjoy watching both of them. I’m a big fan of Jameis and I’m a big fan of Marcus in all kinds of ways. I’d have to be a part of the draft process, and I’m not sure how that process looks yet. But I’d be happy to have both of those guys on my team.
ACC players to watch in 2015
Everett Golson, Florida State QB
Golson transferred to Florida State this spring after spending four years at Notre Dame and is competing for the starting quarterback job. He led the Fighting Irish to the national title game as a redshirt freshman and played well to start last season before committing a number of costly turnovers as Notre Dame finished with a 7-5 record.
Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech QB
Thomas threw and ran for over 2,800 combined yards combined last season, guiding the Yellow Jackets all the way to the ACC title game and an Orange Bowl victory. With running backs Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins gone, Thomas will have to shoulder even more of the offense in 2015.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson QB
Watson missed five games last season due to injuries, including Clemson's Russell Athletic Bowl victory while he recovered from a torn ACL. Watson is said to be ahead of schedule in his rehab and should build on a true freshman season in which he threw for over 1,400 yards in eight games.
James Conner, Pittsburgh RB
Conner established himself as a workhorse back for the Panthers in 2014, carrying the ball 298 times fore 1,765 yards with 26 touchdowns. He's in line for more opportunities to run the ball this upcoming season.
Jalen Ramsey, Florida State DB
Ramsey enters his third year at Florida State as one of the best cornerbacks in college football. Ramsey started as a true freshman on the Seminoles' 2013 national championship squad and has only improved since. It would be a surprise if quarterbacks test him often.
Brad Kaaya, Miami QB
Kaaya was tasked with restoring The U as just a true freshman, and he performed well even as the Hurricanes fell short of expectations. The quarterback threw for 26 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions, amassing over 3,000 yards. But Kaaya will have to be even better as a sophomore to rally the Hurricanes, who lost four in a row to end 2014.
Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech CB
Fuller enters his third season at Virginia Tech as a shutdown corner. He recorded six interceptions in his true freshman season in 2013, so teams hardly threw at him last year. Although the lack of opportunities may limit his statistical production, Fuller's dominance is undeniable.
Jacoby Brissett, N.C. State QB
The former Florida passer was given the keys to the Wolfpack offense last season after sitting out 2013. Brissett responded with 23 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards combined running and throwing. His talent as a dual-threat helped N.C. State improve by five wins last season and could make the Wolfpack a tough conference foe in '15.
Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh WR
Boyd has been a menace since stepping onto the field as a true freshman in 2013. He's caught at least 78 passes in each of his first two seasons and has 15 receiving touchdowns in his career. A threat as a kick and punt return too, the Pitt receiver averaged 148.3 all-purpose yards per game last year.
Roberto Aguayo, Florida State K
Aguayo has been lights out since 2013, when he won the Lou Groza award as a redshirt freshman. After hitting on 27-of-30 field goals last year (not a single miss came inside of 40 yards), the Seminoles kicker passed up on a chance to enter the NFL draft early.