Drive the car. Don’t try to be the car.
Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson hears that a lot from his coaches. The message is you are a great offensive player surrounded by other great offensive players. So don’t feel you are singularly responsible for the Tigers’ success or failure this season.
“You just occasionally remind him he’s really only driving this 400-horsepower car,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “We’ve got a lot of great linemen and a lot of receivers and running backs who can make plays. So the most important thing for him is to keep his hands on the steering wheel and run the tempo.
“Think of (playing quarterback) as more of a point guard who doesn’t always have to be a low-post player, too.”
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Message received. In Clemson’s season-opening, 49-10 victory over Wofford, Watson completed 18 of 22 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns. He ran only twice last Saturday, but gained 22 yards on those carries.
Watson, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, was frequently mentioned over the summer as a viable Heisman Trophy candidate. His freshman season, which included five starts (a 4-1 record), Watson averaged 10.7 yards per attempt and had a 188.7 passing efficiency. Those figures led FBS football among players with at least 125 passing attempts.
If all the national attention has affected him, you wouldn’t tell from his demeanor. Watson comes across in group interviews as confident, but level-headed and a bit guarded about saying the wrong thing. Think a Peyton Manning in his teen years.
“I just let them talk. I know how I can play and also what I control,” Watson said of the Heisman chatter.
“I don’t want to leave any regrets on the field no matter who we play. Just have fun. This is really a game that I love to do. I put in so much working time for those 12 Saturdays I want to leave no doubt.”
Watson and the Tigers will face far tougher challenges than beating up on Wofford, which plays in the FCS division. After Saturday’s home game against Appalachian State (12:30 p.m. kickoff), Clemson will navigate through a three-game span of at Louisville and home against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
Remain undefeated through that span and the Tigers might really be in the conversation for one of four playoff spots for the national championship (though a home game against Florida State would loom Nov. 7).
Watson started last season as senior Cole Stoudt’s backup, but was told he would play at least some immediately.
Inserted midway through the opener at Georgia, Watson threw a 30-yard post pattern to wide receiver Charone Peake. It was an NFL throw, the ball hitting Peake in stride between two defenders as he crossed the goal line.
Asked if that was Watson’s coming-of-age moment in college football, Watson deflected the notion.
“A lot of people thought I was nervous at the time, and I really wasn’t,” Watson recalled. “The moment that I found I was really playing college football was before: Riding into Athens on the bus, seeing all the fans. A year before that I was a recruit watching those buses. Now I’m on the bus.
“That’s the moment it hit me. Once I hit the field, it was go time.”
If that sounds a bit too “Robo-QB,” then keep in mind Watson started as a varsity quarterback at Gainesville (Ga.) High from the ninth grade on. The offense Watson ran in high school was similar to Clemson’s; obviously not as dense with plays, but similar in a high-pace, spread approach.
Clemson’s coaching staff identified Watson early on as a great fit. He attended sports camps at Clemson three summers as a teenager. Former offensive coordinator Chad Morris, now a first-season head coach at Southern Methodist, believes he saw just about every home basketball game Watson played in high school.
Scott said the coaching staff has been especially impressed by Watson’s focus for the game.
“The great players -- and I’m not talking exclusively talent -- get into a zone. They have a check list in their minds and they’re not worried what’s outside that,” Scott said.
“What I took from that (Georgia) game was he could handle the big moment playing a game as the top prospect in that state. To make that throw in that situation? It kind of didn’t surprise us at all.
“He’s not cocky or arrogant, but he knows his craft. Sometimes players are so talented they don’t respect how much they have to learn. With him we couldn’t teach him enough info for all the meetings and all the film sessions” Watson requested.
Plenty of adversity
Much of the above could leave you believing Watson has lived some charmed life. Yet he and his family have faced abundant adversity.
Watson spent much of his youth living in a government housing project. That changed for the better when he was 10 and attending a church Halloween party.
He brought home a goody bag that included information about the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. His mother, Deann, read the material and began the complicated process of financial forms and classes that can lead to home ownership.
She qualified, eventually moving her family to a far safer place with a backyard.
“It is a life-changer,” Watson told the (Seneca, S.C.) Daily Journal-Messenger during a Habitat for Humanity event. “I took a different approach to life after that.”
Watson has quite a role model in Deann, a single mother of five siblings. She was diagnosed in 2011 with advanced cancer of the tongue. She underwent complex surgery to remove the tongue and has been cancer-free for two years. She will be fed through a tube for the rest of her life and has difficulty speaking effectively, but feels blessed to have survived.
Last season, after Deshaun Watson tore an ACL (the knee injury was originally diagnosed as a sprain and bone bruise), he toughed out playing against South Carolina. The result? A 35-17 victory that ended a five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks.
Watson had surgery after the season. Scott said he was the model patient in rehabilitation, cleared to practice from the first day of fall drills.
The only reminder of the injury? Watson is required to wear a brace this season as a precaution.
“It really doesn’t bother me at all,” Watson said with a shrug.
Watson has taken the coaches’ message to heart about not attempting to do super-human things to live up to outside expectations.
“This is about running the play that is called and doing our jobs -- don’t try to do too much. Be simple and play fast,” Watson said. “I trust my skill set and knowledge of the game that I can play at this level. I just prepare with a purpose.”
He’s had some pretty good mentors along that path. Quarterbacks Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons have both advised Watson on what to expect and how to react.
What did Watson hear from the pros?
“Never change. Always be yourself and keep grinding,” Watson said.
“Never let anyone tell you you can’t do anything. Having that mindset -- that you want to be the best and can be the best -- is the best advice you can get.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell