CLEMSON – A little more than a year ago at this time, quarterbacks Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly were looking over their shoulders at Deshaun Watson, a precocious freshman hoping to learn quickly and make an impact.
He was the best quarterback in the Clemson camp from the day he set foot on campus, but we didn’t know that then.
We do now.
Saturday afternoon found Watson looking over the shoulder of head coach Dabo Swinney during the Tigers’ spring game, soaking in the play calls and game-like atmosphere.
He’s a proven entity, a rising sophomore with big aspirations for himself and the team he’ll lead this fall.
We learned all we need to know about Watson last season.
First, we discovered that he possessed immense talent and the capability of defeating opponents with his arm or legs.
Second, we learned that his mere presence seemed to bring out the best in his teammates, effectively transforming a unit that was good to a unit that at times flirted with greatness.
Finally, we learned that he possesses no small amount of toughness, as first exhibited by his rapid recovery after breaking a bone in his hand early in the season, then confirmed by his ability to help craft a victory against South Carolina while essentially operating on one good knee.
The good news for Clemson fans is that two good knees are in Watson’s immediate future; he underwent surgery for a torn ACL last December and has been on the fast track to recovery ever since.
But instead of sitting back and chilling out on the sideline, Watson has remained an active participant – in therapy, in meetings, in practices and in the spring game. His interest hasn’t wavered, he’s offered advice to the two young quarterbacks who are in the position he was in last year, and he’s gleaned as much detail as possible from new quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter, co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and, of course, Swinney.
Watson was Swinney’s right-hand man during Saturday’s spring game, assuming more the posture and role of an assistant coach rather than a sophomore quarterback.
“Since I can’t be out there physically, I’m going to be out there mentally,” Watson said. “I want to take every rep that every other quarterback takes and make sure I stay prepared, too. It’s something I’ve been doing all spring.”
Watson’s period of learning-through-observation also has reminded him he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting by himself.
“I have talent all around me,” Watson said. “My job is to just get them the ball and let them do the rest.”
Watson’s role is a bit more complex than that, of course, but it’s nice to know that he recognizes that he’s not bigger than the game. Or the team.
He hopes to be healed enough to join in on summer workouts in June, be ready to take snaps come the opening of fall camp in August and have a full head of steam come kickoff on Sept. 5.
The schedule is favorable, which potentially sets the Tigers up for another memorable season. A Thursday night road game at Louisville looms as an early hurdle, but Georgia Tech, Florida State and Notre Dame all come to Death Valley.
Even though the heart of the defense must be replaced, there’s plenty of reason for optimism, and Saturday’s spring game showed that point production shouldn’t be a problem.
“Everyone is positive and wants to take that next step,” Watson said. “We can go all the way.”
That’s a big statement for a sophomore quarterback with only five career starts, but as we’ve come to learn, doubting Watson can be a losing proposition.