PARADISE, Ariz.– Clemson’s spectacular junior quarterback Deshaun Watson may have finished second to Lamar Jackson of Louisville in the Heisman Trophy balloting, but he still feels he is the best player in the country, no matter how the voters decided.
“I’m the best player in the country. That’s how I think. That’s how I feel. People have their own way of voting,” Watson said recently as second-ranked Clemson (12-1) prepared for its College Football Playoff semi-finals against third-ranked Ohio State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl. “I’m playing the best football of my career. That’s how it should be, as you get older and more proven. I should be playing better football.”
It hasn’t take long for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to second the motion, suggesting Heisman voters may have taken Watson’s brilliance for granted over the past three years. Swinney went on to say the Heisman Trophy has been watered down as voters get swayed by the player who suddenly bursts on the scene and misses out on players like Watson, who had a string of consistent seasons.
“I think Deshaun is so good, people are numb to it,” Swinney said.
Watson, a two time Heisman finalist, has passed for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns with a 67.5 completion percentage rate. He completed 75 percent of his passes in November with 12 touchdowns against four interceptions for a pass efficiency rating of 168, accounting for five touchdowns as the Tigers (12-1) defeated Virginia Tech, 42-35, to win the ACC championship. He also rushed for 526 yards and seven scores.
Watson and Swinney are quick to point out they aren’t disrespecting Jackson’s talent. But unlike Jackson, who only has the Citrus Bowl against LSU left before his season ends, Watson hopes to be play two more games and achieve his ultimate goal when arriving Clemson from Gainesville, Ga. .
“You could put the national championship trophy and the Heisman, he wouldn’t think twice about which one to pick,” Swinney said.
Watson, who took 20 credit hours of course work in summer school and has graduated in just three years with a degree in communications, seems destined to receive the accolades he deserves once he declares for the NFL draft this spring, as expected. “As soon as this season is over, the scouts, GMs, head coaches and offensive coordinators will start speaking with Deshaun and he is going to go straight back to the top,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer knows how good Watson is.
Midway through Dec. 2012, Meyer and his quarterback coach Tom Herman made Watson a priority recruit, even though Watson– a rare four-year starter in high school– had already verbally committed to Clemson before his sophomore season.
“That was my second choice, if I didn’t come to Clemson,” Watson admitted. “I grew up an Urban Meyer fan. I loved the way he coached, loved the way he did things. I was a big Tim Tebow fan. I told my mother, I was going to Florida. Then he (Meyer) left Florida and then became the coach at Ohio State, and he came down to visit. And my eyes [were] wide open because he was the coach I dreamed of watching.”
Ohio State was at the top of the list, feeling he was the perfect fit for its spread attack.
The top-ranked dual threat in his class, Watson wanted to visit Ohio Stadium for the spring game, but a state high school basketball playoff game got in the way. However, his high school coach, Bruce Miller suggested that Watson not visit other schools while he was committed to Clemson, just a 90-minute drive from his hometown. “I committed to Clemson, and I stayed true to my word,” Watson said. “I felt comfortable, at home, with the coaching staff, the environment, the university. My mom was able to see every game. I just felt comfortable at Clemson and didn’t want to switch anything.”
Scott, who was then Clemson’s recruiting coordinator, claims he was never worried about losing Watson because of how strong the connection was between the quarterback and the Tigers coaching staff. Swinney and then-offensive coordinator Chad Morris sat down with Watson the spring of his junior year, promising they wouldn’t offer any other quarterbacks in the 2014 class; he would be the only quarterback they would take in the 2013 and 2014 classes.
“We stayed in constant contact,” Scott said. “Coach Swinney did an excellent job with him in the recruiting process, but Chad Morris deserves a lot of credit for Deshaun being at Clemson, because he spent a lot of time, many hours on the phone, and a lot of energy in recruiting Deshaun, developing that relationship that I think ultimately was one of the main factors in Deshaun coming to Clemson.”
Taking a pass on Ohio State has worked out for both teams. The Buckeyes signed J.T. Barrett, who led the Buckeyes to the playoff two of the last three years. Watson guided Clemson to last year’s national championship game. The two have become close friends.
Meyer is still infatuated with Watson. “Not a good player, [a] great player,” he said. “Not a good person, a great person. … We tried to get involved. They did a good job locking him down.”
Now, it will be up to Meyer to lock the dangerous Watson up — or at least slow him down– if the young Buckeyes hope to advance to the national championship game against the winner of the Alabama-Washington semi-finals Jan. 9 in Tampa.
Preparing for the dynamic set of skills Watson brings to the field required at least three different players to give Ohio State the looks it needed to gear up for Clemson’s star quarterback. The Buckeyes had a strong-armed passer it could use for a decent impression of his ability to beat opponents through the air. The scrambling required a bit more speed, though, so the Buckeyes turned a reserve defensive back into the freewheeling version of Watson. But then there was a physical presence between the tackles that couldn’t be duplicated as easily, so a walk-on quarterback took on handling the inside running game.
“We’ve had everything,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “We’ve had [freshman] Dwayne Haskins throwing the ball, because he’s got a cannon. We’ve had [safety] Eric Glover-Williams scrambling. We’ve done a lot of things, just to get all types of looks and get prepared for everything.
“They told us yesterday that we’ve had over 750 Clemson snaps or something like that from the scout team. We’ve been going hard.”