Deshaun Watson remembered when it began.
Seventh grade, halftime of a junior high game, he’d been playing slot receiver and linebacker. “I was one of the hardest hitters on the team,” he said.
The starting quarterback, an eighth grader, was injured, and the coaches were scratching their heads. Watson had been a quarterback on a recreation team in grade school. Bruce Miller, his head coach at Gainesville (Ga.) High, was watching that day. Watson was “as skinny as you could get.”
The legend was born when he threw a 67-yard touchdown pass on his first play at quarterback.
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“I go into each game confident,” he said, “knowing I’m one of the best players on the field.”
Watson was named ACC player of the year on Wednesday, a wire-to-wire victory in a vote by members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association, and ACC offensive MVP. In July, the organization voted him preseason player of the year.
He was the choice on 39 of the 50 ballots. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook polled nine, Duke safety Jeremy Cash and North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams one. Cash was named defensive player of the year.
In many respects, choosing Watson was a no-brainer. The ACC’s best passer during the regular season and one of its top rushers, Watson’s team Saturday night plays North Carolina for the conference championship.
He led the league in passing yards, touchdowns passes, completion percentage and passer rating. Additionally, he led in total offense and was ninth in rushing, second among quarterbacks to Williams.
Watson has also thrown 10 interceptions, more than all but two starting quarterbacks in the league, but they haven’t diminished his national profile. A semifinalist for the Maxwell and O’Brien awards, Watson seems to be on the fast track toward a visit to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“Without the team, I wouldn’t be able to be a finalist for those awards,” he said. Nor would Clemson be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation without him.
There are quarterbacks with bigger numbers on teams with more prolific offenses – Patrick Mahomes II at Texas Tech, Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma and Chad Kelly at Ole Miss – but its doubtful any of them are as smooth and relaxed.
“That’s just the type of person I am. I never really flinch or panic under pressure,” he said. “I just know what the situation is and where we need to go.”
Whether he’s just wired differently or learned early in his life to compartmentalize his emotions, Watson is the epitome of “cool.”
“It’s just something I’ve always had, make sure I stay calm under pressure,” he said.
“The moment for me has never been too big. I try not to make it big. It’s something I’ve been dreaming for and hoping for.”
More than a year ago, he started for the first time against this same North Carolina team and passed for six touchdowns. That alone might provide a boost of confidence for another quarterback, except that North Carolina’s defense has made giant strides and Watson recognized the players’ confidence as he watched the Tar Heels this season.
“Last year and this year are totally different seasons,” he said. “For me, it’s a totally different game.”
And he struggled to remember the last time – if ever – he faced anxiety in a game
“I’ve never really been afraid or nervous in college because they recruited me for a reason – to lead this program,” he said.
“Just being nervous? I don’t even know. Probably some time in high school.”
Probably wasn’t that first snap in seventh grade either.
A look at the quarterbacks in Saturday’s ACC Championship game:
Clemson, 6-2, 210, So.
Passing yards: 3,223
Passing TDs: 27
Rushing TDs: 9
UNC, 6-2, 225, Sr.
Passing yards: 2,605
Passing TDs: 18
Rushing TDs: 10