FORT LAUDERDALE — In January 2014, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott waited for a recruit outside Memorial Stadium on a Saturday night at around 9:15. Only the surrounding ribbon boards shone light on the field, which was covered in the misty darkness of a chilly 40° night.
Scott heard voices coming from the dimly lit expanse and walked down for closer inspection, assuming some overserved students had snuck in to play catch. Instead he saw quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Artavis Scott, prized prospects who had both enrolled just weeks earlier, squinting into their new playbook, executing a pass pattern and returning to look up the next play. "Most college freshmen, especially just getting to college, they're probably trying to find some party on a Saturday night, right?" Scott says. "This kid [Watson] is special. That's a true example of preparing when nobody is watching."
Everything has happened fast for Watson, who started as freshman at Gainesville (Ga.) High, earned the Tigers' starting job as true freshman and led Clemson to a 13–0 record and spot in the College Football Playoff as a sophomore in 2015. As Scott's story shows, Watson began crafting his legend early in his college career.
Considering his developmental pace, it's reasonable to begin getting an early read on Watson's potential as an NFL quarterback. In just two years he has emerged as one of this decade's most intriguing prospects. SI.com contacted numerous scouts, coaches and analysts about Watson's pro prospects and the consensus was that he is a potential top pick in the 2017 draft (after his junior season). "As for right now, as a sophomore, I don't know if there's many people better to be able to do the things he can do with the football," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said.
While traditionalists may bristle at the notion of evaluating Watson's pro potential so soon, his instant success is indicative of the expedited cycle of college football. The expectations have changed to the point where top high school recruits like Watson—he was rated as the country's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2014—plan on spending just three years in college, the minimum allowed by the NFL. (Watson has taken heavy course loads during this season and over the summer so he can earn his degree if he does indeed decide to leave early and declare for the draft.)
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It's often futile to ask NFL scouts about sophomores, as they rarely assess prospects before they are draft eligible. But there's an increasing feeling that Watson's rare blend of precision passing and elite athleticism will propel him to become the top quarterback taken in the 2017 draft, as well as a potential top-10 pick. "The premium for that position will put him in that conversation," one veteran scout told SI.com. "He's big and fast and mechanically very good. He's over the top with his release. He throws with velocity and touch and throws a very good deep ball."
What could separate Watson as a prospect may be on display in the Orange Bowl semifinal against the fourth-ranked Sooners (11–1) on Thursday: his deft touch on deep passes. Stoops calls the Tigers a "shot team," noting their penchant for throwing five or six vertical routes per game. Watson's ability to hit a receiver's outside shoulder with touch on those deep routes sets him apart. "There's a quote, 'There's no defense for the perfect ball,' " Clemson fifth-year senior receiver Charone Peake said. "He's the epitome of that."
Watson is completing 44.6% of his passes of 20 yards or longer this year, and he leads all Power Five quarterbacks with 16 touchdowns on those attempts. (He also has six interceptions on those throws, the second most in the Power Five, making the Tigers' ability to connect on deep balls a giant swing factor in the semifinal.) "He's the best quarterback in America this year that I've seen," said an opposing defensive coach who has studied Watson extensively. "He can throw from the pocket and throw deep. He can throw it on the move. He's a really good runner, be it a designed run or just extending the play. He's as scary a quarterback for a defensive coach as there is."
True to his small-town roots in Gainesville, Ga., Watson is low key and humble. However, he did get mildly annoyed—by his standards, anyway—when he found himself defending his talents as a passer in a media session on Sunday. Spread-offense quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and Tajh Boyd, who preceded Watson as Clemson's star quarterback, have struggled in the pros. That means that Watson, who runs at Tigers offense that one NFL scout described as "basketball on grass,"will be facing an extra level of scrutiny. He has also run for 887 yards and 11 touchdowns this fall, which, in the twisted world of NFL player evaluation, could be held against him. "I feel like I'm dangerous either way [running or passing]," Watson said. "I would say I didn't throw for 3,500 yards for no reason, and [those yards] weren't always outside the pocket. Either way, I feel like I'm pretty dangerous."
When another reporter pressed Watson about the NFL, he brought up his high school career. Watson played in an Air Raid scheme at Gainesville High, where he entered with great expectations. "I looked at him and I told him, you're going to be the Peyton Manning of Georgia high school football," said Michael Perry, the Red Elephants' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In the end, Watson may have been better. He broke the state's all-time passing record in the final game of his junior season and ended his career with cartoonish numbers: 155 passing touchdowns, 218 total scores and 13,077 total yards. All are state records.
"I really don't care what they think," Watson said of those evaluating him as a pro prospect. "You can go back to my high school days. I'm 46–9 and won a state championship. I have 13,000 passing yards. The next one is 9,000. I think I can pass the ball. I have 3,500 yards this year. I really don't care what people think about my game, as long I'm getting a W."
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Watson arrived at Clemson as one of the most highly regarded recruits in school history, and he has exceeded even the most outsized expectations. He finished third in this year's Heisman Trophy voting, won the Davey O'Brien Award given to the nation's top quarterback and will enter next season as a Heisman favorite. He has completed 69.5% of his passes and thrown for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns, with 11 picks.
Watson also came to the Tigers as the most mentally prepared quarterback that Dabo Swinney had ever coached. Watson endured three injuries his freshman year—a red flag that will concern NFL decision-makers—and started in five of the eight games in which he appeared. He has suffered a broken collarbone, a broken hand and a torn ACL, yet he played through that last injury in a 35–17 victory over South Carolina as a freshman. He missed Clemson's 40–6 blowout of Oklahoma in last December's Russell Athletic Bowl, but the injuries did not stunt his development (other than perhaps the ability to pack weight on his skinny 6' 2", 210-pound frame, as Watson could benefit from another 15 to 20 pounds of muscle).
Fully healthy this fall, he has led the Tigers to their first undefeated regular season since 1981, emerging as the transformative player that the Tigers coaches projected he would be when they signed him. Swinney points out that Watson has won every game as a starter that he has been healthy enough to finish. "He's just been one of those kids that it's kind of expected," Swinney said. "He doesn't know any different. For maybe normal people like us, maybe you go, Wow, look at what I'm doing. But for him, I think that's just the way it's been his whole life. And so he just expects to be successful."
While there is still a lot of time to get a read on Watson's professional prospects, his overachievement arc and early success project to continue at the next level.