Unless there’s an emergency or a need for style points, Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson will not play Thursday night against Wake Forest.
Returning from surgery to repair a bone fractured in his throwing hand Oct. 11, Watson will be dressed and prepared, coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. “Not sure we’ll play him, but he’ll be ready to go.”
There’s no urgency to expose Watson with Georgia Tech and South Carolina ahead on the schedule, particuarly if Clemson takes care of business against a Wake team (2-6 overall, 0-4 ACC) that has not scored more than 24 points in any game and has beaten only Army and Gardner-Webb.
Without Watson, Clemson dispatched four consecutive conference opponents and debuted at No. 19 in the College Football Playoff poll, largely on the strength of a defense that has limited opponents to 268.6 yards per game, second nationally to Wisconsin.
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Injuries took down an inordinate number of players from the original offensive two-deep and required Clemson to play with a line held together with bailing twine and that orange duct tape.
“Having a few days off has been good for our team,” said Swinney during his weekly media briefing. “Just a lot of different injury situations, a lot of guys beat up and banged up, I think they’re as healthy as they’ve been in a while.”
Watson, running back Tyshon Dye and tight end Jordan Leggett could provide a boost to the offense, but center Jay Guillermo and receiver Charone Peake remain on hold at least until next week. Corner Martin Jenkins (foot) and tight end D.J. Greenlee (knee) required surgery during the off week. Swinney said Jenkins could return by the South Carolina game.
Having Watson, even if he doesn’t play Thursday, should be huge next week in Atlanta. Without him, Clemson’s offensive production has dipped, from 40 points and 490 yards the first five games to 18.7 points and 334 yards the past three, which would be enough to beat Wake Forest.
“If we needed him to win the game,” Watson would play, but Swinney has senior Cole Stoudt ready for his sixth start. Stoudt entered the Louisville game for Watson nursing a sprained shoulder and played through the pain the next two weeks. The time off benefited him, too.
“Cole is feeling a lot better. You can just tell,” Swinney said. “He’s gotten a lot better on the field each week. This extra time has been great for him, too, and he’s practiced really well since last Thursday.”
Dye, a redshirt freshman, might finally have an opportunity to show the promise after a string of injuries including a torn Achilles. Leggett missed the Syracuse game after surgery to repair a torn meniscus two weeks ago.
Other than Watson and the defense, the next best story line might be how the offensive line persevered. Senior Reid Webster was named the starting center, replacing Ryan Norton and holding down the job until Jay Guillermo returns. Already this season, Webster has started at left guard, right guard and right tackle. Swinney said he might be the team’s most valuable player, and assistant Robbie Caldwell is the coach of the year.
“We’ve pulled it together on offense,” Swinney said. “We just haven’t had the continuity. It’s been fun. It’s been a different challenge. We have found ways to win games.”
Minimizing the challenges and obstacles are critical over the final four games, when the most critical eyes are watching. The CFP committee will set the pairings for the major bowls in addition to its choices for playoff semifinalists, which might require winning with style.
“We need to have a great November,” Swinney said. “That’s, ultimately, how we’re going to be judged by, how we finish this season.”