PINEHURST, N.C. — Brad Kaaya first spotted Deshaun Watson in Oregon.
Then rising high-school seniors on the summer showcase circuit, the two quarterbacks were competing for final spots on the prestigious Elite 11 at Nike’s complex in Beaverton. Kaaya, a West Coast kid en route to Miami, remembers seeing the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback, Clemson-bound Deshaun Watson, at the event and, not knowing they would become future ACC opponents, thinking there was substance behind the blue-chip reputation.
"I saw him throw a couple years ago, and I said, ‘That guy’s going to be pretty special,’" Kaaya said at the ACC Kickoff on Monday. Watson did not attend the media event. "He’s a good player. He can spin it."
Kaaya and Watson, both of whom landed on that 2013 Elite 11 list, now enter the 2015 season on similar paths, two rising sophomores preparing to shoulder the weight of expectations at traditional college football powers.
Forced into action straight out of high school — Kaaya won Miami’s quarterback battle in fall camp, while Watson’s talent proved impossible to keep on the Clemson bench — both players posted record-breaking freshman campaigns last year. Kaaya took home ACC Rookie of the Year honors after leading the conference in efficiency by passing for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns. Watson was, when healthy, the ACC’s most dynamic playmaker, a dual-threat nightmare for opposing defenses that completely altered Clemson’s offensive identity. And if there’s a better signal-caller in the conference, age is not on his side.
Kaaya and Watson are the league’s present and future behind center.
The ACC is not entirely quarterback-deficient, either.
Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack was lethally efficient with speedster Justin Thomas calling the shots. North Carolina’s Marquise Williams finished a couple hundred yards shy of a monster 3,000 passing-1,000 rushing season. Jacoby Brissett flashed brilliance at times in his first eligible season at NC State. Everett Golson, the former Notre Dame standout, should adequately fill No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston’s void. It’s a top-heavy, but solid group.
But as the Big 12 (Trevone Boykin), Pac-12 (Jared Goff, Cody Kessler), SEC (Dak Prescott) and Big Ten (Christian Hackenburg, Connor Cook, Ohio State’s entire depth chart) are headlined, for the most part, by upperclassmen entering the 2015 season, the ACC’s brightest prospects come with a one-year sample size.
Potential stumbling blocks litter their paths, too. Injuries, personnel losses, defensive adjustments … transitioning from freshman sensation to bona fide (and consistent) national star is not hurdle-free. To varying degrees, both sophomores have more to prove.
Watson, in that respect, might be the conference’s biggest wildcard.
The Gainesville, Ga., product lit the college football world on fire in his all-too-brief freshman clinic. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney aimed to reward longtime Tajh Boyd backup Cole Stoudt with the starting job in his redshirt senior season, but Watson, a former five-star recruit on essentially every major program’s wish list, torched that game plan. His ability made it impractical for Swinney & Co. to keep him sidelined. After productive relief outings against national heavyweights like Georgia and Florida State, Watson received his first start four games into the season against North Carolina. He threw an ACC-record six touchdowns that night at Clemson Memorial Stadium.
It was a shooting star of a season, one with an inexplicable encore. Twice knocked out of action due to injuries, Watson wrapped up his first season by posting 282 yards and four touchdowns on South Carolina to end the Tigers’ long-standing drought against their in-state rival … and he did it on a torn ACL.
The cumulative result: 1,666 total yards and 19 touchdowns. So after just three full games of the product redefining the hype, Phase Two comes with much anticipation. Watson underwent ACL surgery on Dec. 12 and, by all accounts, is making steady recovery. Tigers offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said his quarterback is on a different training regimen than the rest of the team, but that the knee looks excellent and Watson is up running and making cuts. ("He’ll be ready.")
Watson’s health is priority No. 1 for a Tigers team looking to keep pace in the Atlantic Division after sustaining key personnel losses, especially on the defensive end. NFL draftees Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony and Grady Jarrett are out, as are four starters along the offensive line and high-profile offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who took the SMU job. Clemson will need its playmaking quarterback up to speed as it looks for its fifth straight 10-win season.
"I really think that with Cole and with Deshaun, going back and forth, we tried to run plays that Deshaun could run with Cole. And obviously he can’t execute at the same level, he can’t run the ball as efficiently as Deshaun can," Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said of last season’s up-and-down nature on offense. " … I think we have something to prove because we took a slight decline as an offense. We’re ready to get back to that 2012 year when we were at the top of the country."
Miami’s up-and-coming quarterback finds himself in a slightly different situation.
The California product avoided the injury bug, but Miami tapered off down the stretch and suffered big-time roster hits. Star running back Duke Johnson is in the NFL. Same goes for receiver Phillip Dorsett, tackle Ereck Flowers and tight end Clive Walford. (And that’s just on the offensive end.) The Hurricanes have recruited better than any other ACC Coastal team during coach Al Golden’s tenure, but that’s plenty of production to replace for a program still searching for its first in-conference achievement of any kind since its Big East days. Such is the nature of college football: Top players graduate or move on and players behind them are forced to take ownership.
Kaaya sat front and center for Miami on Monday, the program’s new voice.
"I recognize that I had a good freshman year," Kaaya said. "I got some awards, that was cool. But it’s just about having that same momentum for this coming season and then just getting the guys around me — all the young guys, the guys who redshirted, the guys who are sophomores and juniors — getting those guys to play around me. Because it isn’t just my show. It isn’t the Brad Kaaya Show. It’s not all about me."
Recruiting rankings say the Hurricanes have the talent, but Golden’s team needs to put it all together. Fortunately, the Hurricanes look to have the the most important position taken care of.
"I’ve said this before: It’s not the NFL. At one point, people didn’t know who Phillip Dorsett was. At one point, people didn’t know who Duke Johnson was," Kaaya said of his team’s personnel losses. "Obviously they were both huge recruits coming out of high school, but at the same time nobody knew they were going to be NFL draft picks or college superstars. No one knew that. Before that I’m sure it was like Olivier Vernon. People say, ‘Oh Olivier Vernon’s leaving, what are you guys gonna do?’ Or both that it was, I don’t know, ‘Clinton Portis is leaving. What are the ’03 ‘Canes gonna do?’
"For us, we have some good young guys that are stepping up. Our coaches know how to recruit. It’s not like we’re recruiting duds. We’re recruiting really good athletes, world-class athletes."
From a national perspective, the Clemson and Miami quarterback situations are two top-of-mind examples in the growing prominence of freshmen contributors in college football. The traditional hierarchy at high-profile programs, where coaches are often able to stockpile talent, slots first-year players at the very bottom of the totem pole. Upperclassmen are, for obvious reasons, considered the safer picks. That traditionalism has been occasionally eschewed at nationally ranked programs in recent seasons.
Heisman Trophy awards are on display at Florida State and Texas A&M thanks to redshirt freshman quarterbacks. Arizona leaned on true freshman Anu Solomon in its BCS bowl push. Before suffering a season-ending injury, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett posted near-historic numbers while leading Ohio State back into the College Football Playoff picture. Whether it’s due to system fit or talent simply winning out, there’s a trend that frosh QBs are not being forced to wait their turn quite as often.
Kaaya said that starting for a national power makes for a different freshman experience, but that the complexity and advanced nature of high-school football is preparing incoming players to perform immediately.
"There’s been freshmen before me that have done it, and there’s going to be a whole lot after me," said Kaaya, who was an early enrollee at Miami last spring. "If you just look at the high-school landscape now, high-school offenses are getting a lot more complex. High school programs are having crazy, insane weight room regimens. I think in the coming years you’re going to see a lot more true freshmen starting, a lot more guys coming into college game-ready from Day 1. Maybe a team in 20 years you see a team where it’s like eight freshmen starting."
Clemson is looking to maintain its recent stretch of excellence in 2015. Miami is looking to rediscover its own. The weight of those expectations will fall, first and foremost, on sophomore arms.