This story appears in the April 17, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Clemson coaches call the pressure package Stud Poker. They expect to see it from an opposing defense once a game—if that—so they spend little time preparing for the package in practices and meetings. Yet here Georgia was, dealing Stud in the second quarter of the 2014 season opener. As safeties J.J. Green and Corey Moore crouched across from right tackle Joe Gore, preparing to blitz, the Tigers’ staff wondered whether Deshaun Watson had any idea what to do next.
Would their quarterback recall that he needed to keep tight end Stanton Seckinger and tailback D.J. Howard in to block? The Bulldogs’ Leonard Floyd, a future first-round edge rusher, stood at linebacker depth and stared at left guard Reid Webster. Watson would need all seven blockers, including Seckinger and Howard, just to stay upright. And if Watson did keep Seckinger and Howard at home, could he then take advantage? At 6' 2" and 237 pounds, linebacker Ramik Wilson wasn’t built to cover a receiver in the middle of the field. Watson could squeeze off a pass to wideout Charone Peake before free safety Quincy Mauger rolled over the top to help Wilson—and before those blitzers reached their destination—for a potential touchdown.
Watson caught the snap, dropped back, set his feet and, with protection provided by Seckinger and Howard, fired a laser beam that zipped past Wilson and into Peake’s hands. Mauger, arriving just as the ball reached its target, wound up shoving Peake across the goal line for a 30-yard TD.
Thus culminated Deshaun Watson’s first drive in his first college game. Watson still hadn’t won the starting job, but his sixth snap offered a preview of many touchdowns to come. “That’s where—on the headsets—everybody just went, ‘Wow,’ ” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott says. “What he did there was something you expect your junior quarterback to do.”
By the end of his junior year, Watson had led Clemson to the 2017 national title, earned his degree and declared for the NFL draft. He has since been pressing his case to be the first QB off the board. To those who watched him dominate at Clemson, it’s mind-boggling this is even a debate. The other top prospects don’t have anything approaching Watson’s body of work. He went 32–3 as a starter, with two transcendent performances on the biggest stage, both against mighty Alabama defense. But this isn’t some nebulous, Tim Tebow, he’s-just-a-winner stuff. Watson’s skills translate to the NFL.
Jordan Palmer, a journeyman QB who trained Blake Bortles for the draft three years ago, has worked with Watson since last summer. “There’s more data available on what he’s going to be than any quarterback since I’ve been paying attention to this,” Palmer says. What Palmer means is this: We don’t know how North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky or Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer or Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes or Cal’s Davis Webb would fare with a three-point deficit and a national championship on the line with 2:07 remaining. We know exactly what Watson would do. He’d march his team down the field, throw a touchdown pass and—as he did in January—win the damn game.
At the NFL combine Cardinals coach Bruce Arians explained why QBs are notoriously difficult to project: “I can see his arm strength. I can see his speed. But the two things he plays with—his head and his heart—they’re really hard to evaluate.” Later, Arians said that the head is the most difficult to assess. Those who know Watson’s story have no doubts about his heart. The CFP championship game showcased his tenacity. The way he helped keep his family together during high school (where he played football while helping his mother, Deann, through cancer treatments) showed his inner resolve. Watson’s head should pass the tests he’ll be given by NFL teams during the predraft process.
Clemson doesn’t run an NFL offense. The Tigers play fast, and they often prioritize tempo over getting into the perfect play. They do not ask their QB to handle the variety of protections an NFL team would. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is [having] the recall,” Bears coach John Fox says of up-tempo college QBs. “In college football, you’ll see them at the line and the whole offense will look at the sideline. The recall in the huddle takes a little bit of practice. It’s like memorizing a poem.” Teams will want to know if Watson can memorize that poem, recite it in the huddle and then—in a matter of seconds—diagnose the defense and adjust the pass-protection plan to ensure the play works.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen believes that one of the reasons former Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott excelled last season as a Cowboys rookie was Mullen’s insistence that his quarterbacks manage a much larger variety of protections than they would in a typical spread scheme. In some offenses—Baylor’s in the Art Briles era, for example—the quarterback bears almost no responsibility for adjusting protections. That leaves quarterbacks needing to learn what amounts to a foreign language before they play in the NFL. This is why some NFL teams have adopted the college concept of the redshirt for QBs and offensive linemen. But that’s tougher to do with a quarterback who is supposed to immediately become the face of the franchise. Jared Goff probably needed a redshirt year with the Rams. But because he was the No. 1 pick, he started late last season. It was clear Goff, who played in an Air Raid system at Cal, had a lot to learn. Eagles QB Carson Wentz, meanwhile, adjusted faster because he’d played in a pro-style system at North Dakota State.
That doesn’t mean NFL teams should take players only from pro-style schemes, especially because some teams are attempting to adapt their offenses to what their newest players know. The Patriots, for instance, have incorporated some spread concepts. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says that when one NFL team’s officials vetted tackle Laremy Tunsil before last year’s draft, they also asked Freeze to explain his team’s one-word play calls so the NFL team could streamline its own nomenclature.
Watson didn’t have as much responsibility as the QB in a pro-style offense, but he did have more than the average up-tempo spread QB. It didn’t start that way. When Watson won the starting job following an overtime loss to Florida State his freshman year, then coordinator Chad Morris allowed Watson to do only what Tajh Boyd had been allowed to do the previous year. But Morris gave Watson more responsibility as that season went on, and after Morris left to become SMU's head coach and Scott and Tony Elliott took over coordinator duties in 2015, Watson received even more freedom. He could change plays at the line of scrimmage. He could reset or flip protections.
Watson isn’t perfect. The footage that will draw the most scrutiny is of the interception he threw in the end zone during the fourth quarter of a 43–42 loss to Pittsburgh last season. Watson was to hit receiver Hunter Renfrow running a drag from left to right. Tight end Jordan Leggett was supposed to run hard to the flat to create space for Renfrow, but instead floated toward Renfrow and created a clog. Watson released the ball anyway, and linebacker Saleem Brightwell—who should have been following Leggett into the flat—made the pick. Critics will use that throw to paint him as an up-tempo spread automaton who can’t adjust to the defense. Those critics will not bring up a third-and-five play with Clemson trailing by five at Florida State with 2:32 remaining on Oct. 29. On that play, Watson was supposed to hit Artavis Scott running a drag just beyond the line. The Seminoles must have known this as well, because they rushed only three and dropped defensive end Brian Burns toward the spot Scott was headed. There, Burns joined linebacker Matthew Thomas to cover Scott. Watson saw the ruse and pulled his arm down. He then collected himself, scanned the field and fired to Leggett—who had settled in front of a safety near the left sideline—for an 11-yard gain. The next play, Watson threw a 34-yard TD pass to Leggett to seal the win. “He sees it exactly like the offensive coordinator sees it,” Scott says. “And that’s what the great ones do.”
Watson can do the same in the NFL for the team smart enough to ignore the noise and make the obvious choice.