CLEMSON — Imagine the test of loyalty Deshaun Watson passed before he enrolled at Clemson.
Two years ago, he became the first member of Clemson’s 2014 recruiting class, which, with Watson as the crown jewel, grew into another highly ranked class. But in a culture where “commitment” is more shades of gray than black and white, most of college football shrugged at the notion that Watson would fulfill his pledge.
The following season, he led Gainesville (Ga.) High to a Georgia state football championship, further elevating his stature as a gifted quarterback prospect. One recruiting analyst wrote he was the best quarterback from Georgia since Cam Newton.
Flattered by the attention, Watson wobbled once, making a stealthy visit to Auburn contrary to the wishes of Clemson coaches who maintain they prefer not to accept a commitment until a player is prepared to adhere to the strictest definition. Watson apologized.
Early last year, he politely fouled off last-ditch pitches from college football royalty — including an offer from Alabama, which he admitted was “cool” — insisting his commitment was firm. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman groused about traveling several hours for a three-minute visit.
So what was the attraction?
Word on the street in Gainesville, Ga., seven years ago was that a quarterback was coming from the recreation program.
“I’d learned a long time ago never to get too excited about kids that age because they often didn’t pan out,” said Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller. Watson was a seventh grader when they met, principally a linebacker/receiver. Miller begins to evaluate players on the middle school team, so when the starting quarterback, an eighth grader, was injured, Watson replaced him and never sat again.
Two years later, he started his first varsity game against defending state champion Buford, and though Miller began to second guess why he was starting “a skinny as you could get” 14-year-old, Watson threw for three touchdowns in a 40-19 loss. In short-yardage situations that season, Watson was pulled to protect him. “We were afraid to run him because we were afraid he’d get broken in half,” Miller said.
Gainesville would not lose again that season until the second game of the state playoffs. By then, Watson had become an object of affection for the Clemson coaching staff. Fresh off the plane from Tulsa, Okla., Chad Morris began to wear a groove into I-85 that first winter attending Watson’s basketball games, wondering if it was going to be worth the effort.
The next season, Watson rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and passed for more than 3,000 and 41 touchdowns in a 12-2 season that went one round deeper into the state playoffs.
Clemson was the first to offer a scholarship, and it seems to have meant a great deal to him. With two seasons ahead, Watson accepted the offer in the middle of basketball season, on signing day 2012.
It was about then his mother told him she had been diagnosed with tongue cancer and would require surgery and a lengthy hospitable stay. At her insistence, Watson claimed he was optimistic, but Miller said he became quieter and more introspective, right into his junior season.
That year, Gainesville went 12-3 and won the Georgia state championship. Watson passed for 4,000 yards, rushed for 1,400 and accounted for 74 touchdowns. Deann Watson had her tongue removed and a new one constructed. She is cancer free.
Coach Miller said he never disciplined Watson. Gracious, unassuming, “he’s as even keel as you’d want a human being,” said Miller. “We’ve had many heart-to-heart talks.”
The package measures 6-foot-3 and nearly 200 pounds and has been clocked at 4.8 in the 40, but Watson seems to play bigger and faster. “He was like a man playing with kids,” said reporter Ed Hooper of the Gainesville Times.
As a basketball player, he could rain 3-pointers. The baseball coach at Gainesville wanted him, and Miller believes Watson could have been a state champion high jumper or a scratch golfer.
“I’m not sure that the game doesn’t slow down for him at the high school level,” Miller said. “When he was out there, he was just gliding.”
After four seasons, he owned virtually every known Georgia high school record for total offense and passing — 13,000 yards and 155 touchdowns through the air, 4,000 and another 59 touchdowns rushing from a no-huddle scheme similar to what Clemson runs. Of his 1,458 passes, 29 were intercepted, slighting fewer than 2 percent. Peyton Manning was at 1.5 percent this season, but among NFL quarterbacks, only Tom Brady has a career rate under 2 percent. Like them, Watson was a sponge breaking down a defense on video.
“Give him 10 or 15 minutes, and he’d have a defense figured out,” Miller said. “Deshaun was such a student of the game. He just sees things.
“This year I had no idea what we were running half the time because he was checking off out there,” he said. “I’d ask the guys upstairs what we were running, and they’d say, ‘I’d don’t know, but it’s probably better than what we did.’ I got the backup quarterback at Alabama and I wouldn’t let him do that, but he would see something and get us out of a bad play into a good one.”
Watson’s senior season ended one game short of another shot at a state championship. A month later, he enrolled at Clemson.
“He’s always looking ahead,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen one practice as hard as he practices. It was just amazing. You’d never know he was any different than any other kid.”
One scouting report compared him to Jameis Winston, who as a redshirt freshman took Florida State to a national championship. Watson, named this week to the Parade Magazine All-America team, faces competition with Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly.
“Nothing would surprise me next year,” Miller said. “He’s one of the few kids I’ve seen coming out of high school I thought was ready to step into college ball. Seems like the bigger the game, the bigger the situation, he shows up. He thrives.”
Miller agrees that Watson reminds him of Cam Newton. It does not surprise him that Watson chose to leave the tug of Georgia and the SEC.
“When he went to Clemson he fell in love with it,” he said, “plus their offense suits him.”
As much as it concerned the Gainesville staff early in his career, Watson never missed a down until he injured a knee in his last game and missed a handful of plays before returning with a brace. Miller said Watson should be ready for spring practice at Clemson.
“That’s 17,000 yards that graduated,” Miller said.
“He’s left such a legacy here. They’ll be telling Deshaun Watson stories around Gainesville 20 years from now.”