A FEW ribbon boards flickered in Clemson's Memorial Stadium on a Friday night in January 2014, but otherwise Death Valley was mostly dead. Tigers coaches were busy with official visitors they hoped would help fill out the remaining spots in their recruiting class, while the majority of Clemson's players prepared to do the things college students do on a Friday night.
On the field two figures moved in near silence. They would consult a binder periodically, then move again. The smaller figure was Artavis Scott, then a freshman receiver. The larger one was the quarterback who coaches believed might finally bring the Tigers back to national-title contention. Deshaun Watson, an early enrollee from Gainesville (Ga.) High, had been on campus only a few weeks, but he and his roommate were already planning a takeover of the offense. "We were just trying to make sure we got every detail of the playbook down," Watson says. As they worked, they imagined how the cavernous stadium would feel filled with 81,500 screaming people and rival South Carolina across the line.
Watson doesn't have to imagine anymore. He assumed the starting job in the fourth game last year, and now he hopes to lead Clemson to its first ACC title since 2011. Last Thursday he led his team to 3--0 by running for 54 yards and passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns in a 20--17 win at Louisville. If Watson can stay healthy—which didn't happen last season—a conference title could be just the beginning.
WHEN CLEMSON co--offensive coordinator Jeff Scott was in middle school, his father, Brad, was Florida State's offensive coordinator, and Brad had a special quarterback. The inner confidence that Scott saw in 1993 Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Charlie Ward strikes him as eerily similar to what he perceives in Watson.
September 28, 2015
Watson started as a freshman at Gainesville High and led his team to a 10--2 record. When he attended a football camp at Clemson that summer, Watson had already reached his full 6'2" height, and his arm and his mind were developed beyond his years. Chad Morris, Clemson's offensive coordinator at the time, was so taken that he made it his mission to ensure the young QB wore a paw on his helmet in college. As a kid, Watson had loved Urban Meyer's Florida teams—he wanted to go "from Gainesville to Gainesville," he says—but by the time Clemson began recruiting Watson, Meyer had resigned at Florida and wouldn't take the Ohio State job for another six months. Besides, Watson's mother, Deann, loved Morris and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. Though Watson was in the recruiting class of 2014, he committed to Clemson on National Signing Day in '12.
"Sometimes when you get started with a recruit so early, you can become the old girlfriend when the new schools start calling," says Scott, who was then Clemson's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. But Watson never wavered, which reinforced the staff's belief they had landed a special player.
THAT FEELING deepened during spring practice in 2014. "Typically a five-star freshman comes in, and it doesn't go as easy as he or everybody else thinks it's going to go," Scott says. "The thing that stood out with Deshaun was the game was really slow for him."
After cameos against Georgia and South Carolina State, Watson replaced starter Cole Stoudt with his team trailing 3--0 at Florida State. He completed 19 of 28 throws for 266 yards while running for another 36 yards and a score to nearly pull off the upset. "It felt like a movie," Watson says of the 23--17 loss. "Everything was in slow motion."
Swinney made Watson the starter the next week, and the freshman responded with a school-record six touchdown passes in a 50--35 win over North Carolina. He followed that by throwing two TDs and running for two more in a 41--0 rout of N.C. State. Says Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, "He demolished us."
But Watson broke a bone in his right hand the next week, against Louisville. And when he returned after a three-game absence to face Georgia Tech, he promptly sprained the LCL in his left knee, departing the 28--6 loss in the first quarter. Back at practice five days later, Watson tore his ACL. It turned out he'd had untreated ligament damage dating to high school. By then only one game remained, against South Carolina. Team doctors said Watson wouldn't do further damage if he wore a brace, so with a chance to live out the scene he imagined months earlier, he chose to play. "I wanted to finish strong," says Watson, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns in a 35--17 win, Clemson's first against the Gamecocks since 2008.
After Watson had surgery, he spent the next nine months reassuring everyone that he was not as fragile as his freshman year suggested. Still, Clemson coaches want Watson to drive the car, not be the car. "We tell Deshaun he's got a talented cast around him," Scott says. "He doesn't have to make every play."
But Watson can do that, and he knows it. So when the Tigers need heroics, Watson will be ready to make those plays.
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