CLEMSON, S.C. — On a recent sun-splashed Monday, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson slips on his headphones to walk to class. He plays Future, but not too loud, so he can hear his classmates and teammates if they say hello. He carries a red bottle of Dragonfruit Vitamin Water and has sour gummy worms stashed in his pockets for a snack.
In sweats and a sweatshirt, Watson looks like a typical campus jock sauntering off to class. But as he prepares to finish up his third season with the Tigers and inevitably head off to become a top pick in the NFL draft, Watson's academic experience at Clemson will leave a legacy on campus and perhaps beyond in college football.
Watson, a true junior who enrolled early, will graduate with a degree in communications studies in December in just three years on campus. "It's very special," he said of graduating. "It's good for me and my whole family and the whole generation coming up. Setting an example for my little brother and little sister to be able to do the same thing."
He'll be the first member of his family to graduate from a four-year college, but perhaps more impressive is his plan to graduate around his accelerated college playing timeline. Watson said he took 18 credits in the fall of 2015, 19 this spring and 20 over the summer to prepare himself.
His calculated decision to earn his degree in just three years, the amount of time he expected to be in college, highlights one trend and could be a touchstone for another to begin. In a time when elite college football players are increasingly spending less time on campus, some are tailoring their academic careers around shorter stays.
Star LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, a true junior who did not enroll early, is on track to graduate this spring or summer according to LSU officials. UCLA sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, is on track to graduate in three years with a degree in economics after enrolling early. Watson's teammate and close friend, star receiver Artavis Scott, is also graduating in three years. "They are definitely three-and-done," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says of Watson and Scott. "That was their plan. I support that."
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Watson certainly isn't the first player to leave for the NFL with a degree after three years. (Utah's Alex Smith, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft, is a three-and-done who left with his degree). But it's still considered rare. Officials at Florida, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, Penn State and UCLA told SI.com they could not find any examples of players who spent just three years on campus and graduated before declaring early for the draft. Watson and Scott will be the first Clemson players to do it. "I'm really proud of those guys," Swinney said. "It's hard to do. I don't think it'll be a trend because I know how hard it is to do."
Part of what makes Watson's early graduation story so interesting is that it's linked to the bigger trend of sped up collegiate timelines for top players. Watson arrived at Clemson in January 2014 as the archetype of the modern five-star football prospect after smashing Georgia state records by gaining 17,134 yards of total offense and accounting for 218 touchdowns in high school. ESPN ranked him as the top dual-threat prospect in the country, and he enrolled in January and won the starting job by September.
The days of patience and redshirts from top football prospects are increasingly rare. Nearly a decade after the one-and-done became the norm for top college basketball prospects, elite football players have forged a path where they play and leave earlier. Recruits are even saying it out loud, as USC signee Ykili Ross said during his college announcement last year, he would play there "the next three years."
The NFL early entry numbers back that up. Last year, 96 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. In 2014, it was 98. That's more than double the amount since 2009 (46) and triple the amount from 2000. While the NFL doesn't publicize numbers solely for prospects who spend three years in college—some of those underclassmen are fourth-year juniors who entered early—the trend toward rushing to the draft is clear. "Until college athletes get paid in any sort of manner relative to what they should, you are going to consistently see guys taking the money while they can," Rosen said of the shorter stays on campus. "Especially in a violent sport like football, your career is not going to last."
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Rosen said his plan to graduate in three years wasn't premeditated in high school, but it dawned on him during his freshman year after realizing the academic head start he got by enrolling early. He's also seen former teammates like Kenny Clark and Jordan Payton have their participation limited early on with their NFL teams because of a rule that doesn't allow rookies to fully report until the academic year at their respective school is complete. But if a player has already graduated, that individual is free to report with the rest of his rookie class and has no limits on participation. UCLA's quarter system ends class on June 16, later than most schools. "One huge factor is the rookie mini-camp thing," Rosen said. "I've had friends have to sit out (organized team activities) because they didn't actually graduate, which is not good."
Former Notre Dame star Jaylon Smith, now a rookie with the Cowboys, said he's excited to walk with his graduating class at Notre Dame this spring. Smith said when he played at an elite level his freshman year at Notre Dame he orchestrated his schedule to cram as many classes and credits in as possible. He knew he wouldn't be there four years.
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The linebacker did an internship on campus, studied abroad in South Africa and said that if he had enrolled early he'd have been able to leave with his degree in three years. Smith suffered a devastating injury in his final college game, tearing his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl last season. The concern over his injury dropped his draft stock from a potential top-five pick to the second round. "With a lot of athletes, sometimes you don't need three years," he said. "Think about Leonard Fournette now and me last year. As a sophomore, I would have gone first round."
And while it's clear elite players are distinguishing themselves earlier, it's unlikely the NFL will change its rules to accommodate them. The last players who tried—Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams in 2004—had their bid shot down by the Supreme Court. That may leave top athletes attempting to follow Watson's lead, stretching themselves to maximize their short stints on campus.
Watson admits he gave up a lot to get his degree. He recalled having three tests last year the same week the Tigers played rival Florida State in their biggest game of the regular season. He's lost a lot of sleep, played a lot less video games and missed time hanging around with his teammates. "I barely watch TV," he said, "or talk to people on the phone."
But he's also gained a lot. His mother, Deann, is the only one of her six sibilings to finish high school and said last year that Deshaun's degree meant more to her than attending the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Swinney and Clemson Director of Football Academic Services Matt Lombardi point to Watson's example for inspiring Scott to graduate early, as they came in together and are close friends. Scott said he'd also be the first person in his family to receiver a four-year degree. "He sees it as a competition type thing," Lombardi said. "If Deshaun is going to do it, I'm going to do it too."
As future five stars arrive on campus with plans for short stays, perhaps Watson's example will set a standard for others to chase.