Freshman QB Watson re-writes Clemson record book in win over UNC

Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson set a school record with six touchdown passes on Saturday night.

Bob Leverone/AP

CLEMSON, S.C. — Much ado is made about the balloon-obscured downhill sprint that serves as Clemson’s elaborate stadium entrance. There are moving buses to go along with an honorary rock slap before momentum carries players and coaches headfirst into Death Valley.

Deshaun Watson’s official entrance into Clemson lore — as well as onto the national college football landscape as one of the most insanely gifted starting quarterbacks around — was the main attraction on Saturday night, though.

Before the offensive demolition of the North Carolina Tar Heels, during his team’s warmups, the true freshman entered quietly onto the playing surface with small white headphones in his ears, tossed around a football with a team manager and seemed generally undaunted by the task at hand: his first career start in front of 79,000 orange-clad onlookers. When it was over, a 50-35 score illuminated a stormed field as Watson exited with the full superstar treatment. Two Clemson staffers, one in front and one in back, clung tightly to his No. 4 uniform and led him through a throng of newfound supporters seeking autographs and attention.

This was the aftermath of a coup, the stripping away of custom and leaving it with the rest of the recyclable litter on the campus’s landscape. Clemson has a new starting quarterback.

"Really? Really? Come on, man," Swinney said when asked who would be the starter behind center moving forward. "Anyone else wanna answer that for me?

Deshaun Watson is that starting quarterback. After setting practically every notable school passing record for a freshman — single-game and career — this is no longer a debate, if it ever was one. A just-turned-19 freshman has unseated a fifth-year senior at one of the nation’s top programs. In the end, ability usurped experience.

Watson finished his first of many victory laps to come with 435 passing yards and six touchdowns on 27 of 36 passing. He hit 10 different receivers as the offense racked up 528 total yards on 83 plays from scrimmage. He walked away breaking Tajh Boyd’s school record for single-game touchdowns, bypassed every school freshman passing record of note and heaps of praise. It speaks to how the Tigers have avoided these freshman-centric situations in the past, but it’s also a testament to Watson’s obvious and game-altering ability.

He was the No. 1 dual-threat QB recruit in the 2014 class, and if early doses against Georgia, Florida State and North Carolina have done nothing to throw that hype train off its tracks.

"I’ve been doing this a long time. This is 25 years for me in college football. He’s special," Swinney said. "He makes the game look easy. He makes it look slow. He just kinda floats around, creates and extends plays. He just has a poise about him that’s unique, especially for a guy that’s a true freshman. … Our future looks very bright with that young man leading the way."

In the locker room, the coaches broke the news to the players about all of the accolades their teammate had just garnered. The reaction: "Dang, how in the world did he do that already?" freshman receiver Artavis Scott, who caught one of the touchdown passes, asked out loud.

When offensive coordinator Chad Morris’s offense is clicking at this level — even if it did come against a UNC defense that ranked 122nd coming into the game — it’s difficult not to wonder what took the Watson Era so long to arrive. He was excellent in limited time against Georgia, tossing for 59 yards and a score in the loss, and was head and shoulders the best quarterback on the field during the overtime loss to the top-ranked Seminoles.

It took nine quarters for Watson to steal the show. It should be his for a long, long time.

For a teenager, these are sizable shoes to fill. Boyd, his predecessor, completed his Clemson career as one of the most accomplished and successful quarterbacks in league history. Boyd walked away with the most touchdowns, second-most passing yards and in the top-10 among quarterbacks in rushing in ACC history. He led the Tigers to two BCS bowl games, end-of-season wins against LSU and Ohio State and two consecutive top-10 finishes.

Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt was positioned to be the bridge from Boyd to Watson. Watson has little need for bridges.

"I always looked at a future with me playing, but I didn’t know it was gonna come this fast," Watson said. "I just prepared every day for this moment and that’s what I’ve been working for."

This is not exactly new territory for Watson. He’s played the role of heir apparent once before.

Prior to ripping the Georgia high school record books to shreds and becoming one of the state’s most promising quarterback recruits since Cam Newton in 2007, Watson was just the backup QB playing on the seventh grade team (he started at linebacker) with some sizable footwear to fill at the high school level. Blake Sims, now the starting quarterback for the undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide, was leading Gainesville High School as one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits. 

Sims graduated in 2010, the year before Watson arrived. A 14-year-old Watson participated in spring drills for just three days before wrestling away the job during the summer, leading into the first game of the season against a juggernaut. Even then, Watson had little need for bridges.

As Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said when looking back on Watson’s career: "I had never started a ninth grader at a skill position. And then I started one at quarterback against Buford. … That was the bardest decision I think I ever made as a coach was deciding to start him against Buford. I’m glad I did."

For those unaware, Buford is Georgia high school football’s answer to Notre Dame in the 1940s. The powerhouse program never fades, winning six state titles over the past seven seasons at two different levels. Watson started, the team lost, but he never relinquished the starting job. When all was said and done the state’s record books were re-written: Watson set new marks for passing yards (13,077), passing touchdowns (159) and all-purpose touchdowns (218), all but obliterating the previous highs.

"I knew he was special, really special," Morris said. "I had a chance to watch Vince Young in high school and coach against Vince Young, and I just take the biggest comment I could ever take from coach Mack Brown from when I was there was that after the first couple years he wasn’t quite the player he was in high school. And talking to Coach Brown, they had Vince to come in and watch high school film and say, ‘Hey, we want that guy back.’ And so they said, ‘Look, let’s take the leash off him. Let’s let him go play.’

" … The thing that I’m gonna take out of this (UNC win) is I’m not gonna put a lid on him. We’re gonna let him loose."

Watson basically ran Clemson’s style of offense en route to torching those high school records and he brought that know-how along with him, and after waiting his turn for all of nine quarters, his talent became too apparent to keep on the sidelines. He brings adds an entirely new wrinkle and dimension to an offense that has finished top-10 nationally in scoring each of the past two seasons. (Watson also will not be throwing to NFL receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins with a starting NFL running back, Andre Ellington, behind him like Boyd. His supporting cast is young, and he’s the key cog.) He’s an elusive runner with a deadly accurate deep ball that is going to terrorize opposing secondaries.

"With his ability to not only stretch the field vertically, he can stretch it horizontally with his legs and then you’ve got guys wide open in space and him able to make some guys miss. Get some first downs on busted plays, or maybe a protection that gets flushed," said Morris, who said he will not install the entire playbook in order to prevent his freshman from over-thinking. "Deshaun’s at his best when things are out of the pocket, when things are flushed, because he does a great job of keeping his eyes down the field."

It was obvious against Georgia and Florida State. And against the dumpster fire that is North Carolina’s defense so far, Watson left little behind except scorched earth and a pleased coaching staff.

"This kid’s been starting since he was 14. Against big-time competition. The game is just slow for him," Swinney said. "He’s still got a lot of improving to do, but he just never flinches. He never gets frustrated. He just has a poise that you can’t teach. Most of those great ones do."

The coaching techniques, almost comically, began almost immediately after the game. Meeting in a hallway underneath the Tigers’ field house, Morris put on his best poker face before offering up a scary premonition for the rest of the ACC.

"He made some mistakes," Morris said. "He probably shoulda had a couple more touchdowns."

Tying conference records, apparently, will not be enough.

Expectations are almost always too high for top recruits. Watson came in with comparisons from Newton to Colin Kaepernick while Morris stood in the hallway harkening back to memories of Vince Young. Clemson even un-retired a number specifically for Deshaun Watson, pulling two-time ACC Player of the Year Steve Fuller’s jersey — with Fuller’s blessing — off the shelf.

If Saturday’s performance was any indication, No. 4 might be heading right back into retirement sooner than expected. He’s only set the bar that much higher.