For Clemson's emerging freshman safety, preparation has become a huge part of his game. And Saturday, it paid off big-time.
"(Watford) has great arm strength, but I can see he overthrows his receivers a lot, from watching the games," Kearse said. "I went back and watched all the interceptions he threw in the season. I can see a lot of them he overthrew the receivers or the ball was tipped and it floated into their hands. All I had to do was sit back deep, wait for him to make a mistake and I was going to capitalize."
He did just that. Kearse's interception of Watford – and subsequent 33-yard return inside the Virginia 30 – kick-started a rally that turned a 14-7 Clemson lead midway through the second quarter into a 35-7 blowout at halftime.
It is the kind of play that Kearse has become known for over the last month. He has three interceptions in Clemson's last five games and has forced three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) in the Tigers' last two games.
Saturday, he forced turnovers on back-to-back drives at UVA, and Clemson converted both into touchdowns.
"The game is slowing down for him," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's getting more and more comfortable, getting to where he needs to be. The biggest thing for him is that his athleticism and confidence is just shining through. It's a product of him getting experience. He's very engaged in the whole process."
Three weeks ago, Kearse played only three plays in the Tigers' blowout loss to Florida State, then shared a late-night meal at IHOP with fellow freshman DBs Jadar Johnson and Adrian Baker. He said the perspective of that night and the feeling of disappointment has driven him forward.
"We played timid," Kearse said. "We were thinking about it too much. Instead of just going out and playing ball, just being football players, we thought too much about the game, let the game plan get to us, the big crowd, things like that, instead of going out and being football players."
As a star high school player, Kearse struggled with the initial transition and becoming a small cog in a big machine as an opposed to being one of the most important cogs in a smaller machine.
"It was hard for me coming in," he said. "I'm still having trouble with it because in high school I made a lot of plays and I was the main one making plays. So when you get up here to the college level, you tend to want to do the same thing. But it's all guys here who came here because they made plays in high school. Just let them do their job and take care of your responsibility and your time will come."
Nine games in, he understands that concept much better.
"At the start of the season I was thinking so I didn't go out there and make mistakes," he said. "Now I'm playing, and if I make a mistake, I make a mistake. It's football. You're going to make mistakes. And if I make a mistake I'm going to try and override it by making a big play."
Film study helps tremendously. Kearse says he watches film like everyone else with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but will also squeeze in film sessions when he has time during the day and at night via his team-issued iPad, which has all the necessary film loaded directly to it.
"It has helped," he said. "I'm looking at things different. Going through my procedures, watching film, knowing what the quarterback's tendencies are, knowing what the team's tendency is. Going and watching film, it really gives me an edge over my competitors."
Last week, Kearse told his teammates he was "going to make a pick this week."
Preparation made the difference.
"Just do what you're supposed to do," he said. "Do what you're coached to do and get there and do your job. Stop trying to do what you're not supposed to. That's what I did. We were in a Cover 2 situation and just get back deep, make a play on the ball when the ball is in the air."
Over the last two games, Kearse has played 74 snaps, carving himself out a big role in the Tigers' secondary. And his elders are clearly enjoying his progression.
"Kind of seeing it when he first came in, you knew he had it in him," said junior safety Robert Smith. "It was just timing and just practicing, getting more used to the defense. We knew Jayron had it in him. It's nice to see him out there making plays and having fun.
"As an older guy, you relate to that when you first come in. You remember when you first starting making plays and it's real heartwarming to see Jayron out there having fun. Not just stressed out or anything like that. A lot of people talk about the freshmen coming in, and being overwhelmed. You can see he's really starting to grasp everything."
Kearse now a quality option
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