Apparently the urgency to prepare freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to beat South Carolina dwarfed Clemson’s need for the bowl game with Oklahoma.
Watson underwent surgery Friday to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left leg and ended his season. Clemson faces Oklahoma on Dec. 29 at the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Two weeks after injuring the knee against Georgia Tech, Watson passed for two touchdowns and ran for two while wearing a brace in Clemson’s 35-17 victory against South Carolina. Looking through the prism of the moment, Swinney said he was assured Watson’s knee in a brace was not susceptible to further damage. Now, though not anticipating a lengthy recovery, Swinney said there’s a bigger picture to consider.
“It’s not something we’ve got to rush,” he said Friday. “It will be nearly 8½ months by the time we play a ball game.”
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Swinney said it was more critical “long term” to have Watson healthy for a leadership role next season.
“I just think it’s important that we go ahead and get this surgery done because it’s going to be big in the summer,” he said. “I understand how critical summertime is, and you need that leader. You need somebody out there that’s leading the charge. For him to be out there in the summer and do that is critical.
“There’s really nothing else to it.”
The starting job for the Oklahoma game would seem to land in senior Cole Stoudt’s lap – again. Stoudt opened the season as the starter, lost the job after the third game, returned after Watson injured his throwing hand three weeks later, then started successive wins against Boston College, Syracuse and Wake Forest. Displaced by Watson at Georgia Tech, Stoudt played miserably in a loss that, essentially, cost Clemson consideration for a premium bowl berth.
In his final home game, against Carolina, Stoudt completed one of two passes for a three-yard loss and threw an interception.
In five starts and pieces of three other games, Watson completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards. Two of his 137 passes were intercepted. Watson passed for 14 touchdowns and rushed for a team-high five. In 12 games, including seven starts, Stoudt completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards and six touchdowns. He threw 10 interceptions, 8 over the final five games.
Timing was the determining factor, Swinney said.
“If we’d had (a) game the next week, he’d have probably gone ahead and finished out the season,” he said, “Just the timing of it as we looked at the bowl situation and the rehab process.
“We’re going to do everything we can to win the football game.”
Ranked 17th by the College Football Playoff committee, Clemson was an early three-point underdog to unranked Oklahoma but the Sooners, too, are faced with injuries to a pair of key offensive players.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get our team ready to win the game,” he said.
“There (are) a lot of people that impact winning a game. I know quarterback gets a lot of the credit and the blame, but this football team will pull together and we’ll come up with a great plan and we’ll put out best foot forward and try to win the game.”
Despite missing Watson and tight end Stanton Seckinger (knee), the team should be otherwise healthy, and the game provides a shakedown cruise for a restructured offensive staff. Assistants Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott succeed Chad Morris as co-coordinators, and Brandon Streeter, a former Clemson quarterback, returned from Richmond to replace him as quarterbacks coach. Streeter also succeeded Scott as recruiting coordinator. Elliott was designated to call plays from above the field, unlike Morris, who called plays from the sideline.
Watson could be pressed into duty working with two new scholarship quarterbacks who’ll enroll in January. Once he returns to the field, Watson would be required to wear a brace for at least the first season.
“We’ve got eight months,” he said. “My big thing is, let’s have him ready to go for the summer. He certainly will be ready.
“That’s great recovery time for him.”