Watson watch is on

CLEMSON, S.C. – Bruce Miller knew right away. He had something special in DeShaun Watson.

In August 2010, Gainesville High's longtime head coach sent out Watson – then a 14-year-old freshman – as his starting quarterback in the season opener against state power and Gwinnett County rival Buford.

Even though Gainesville lost the game, it wasn't Watson's fault: the "skinny as a rail" freshman threw three touchdown passes.

"And from then on, everything kept getting better and better every game," Miller recalled. "It was like I had to pinch myself. I've got this kid for three more years?"

Watson lived up to his early promise, and then some.

He finished his high school career with over 17,000 yards of total offense – 13,300 passing and 4,000 rushing – and led the Red Elephants to their first state football championship in school history.

He was a highly sought-after recruit, rated by Scout.com as the nation's No.3 overall quarterback prospect.

In January, he enrolled at Clemson and will compete in spring practice to replace record-setting Tajh Boyd as the Tigers' next starting quarterback.

And while Miller isn't making any predictions, he is confident in Watson's preparation for the next challenge ahead.

"He is a lot further ahead than a lot of freshman quarterbacks in college," he said. "Not because of what we've done, but what he's done. He's refined. With his throwing, he can make every throw – long throws, short throws, check-downs, throws on the run. He's got the package you need to be a quarterback in college."

Not only did Watson account for over 17,000 yards of total offense at Gainesville, he also spent the majority of his last two seasons calling plays. (Scout.com)
Watson was Clemson's first 2014 commitment, pledging to the Tigers on national signing day 2012 and never really wavering. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called him "as talented a guy as we've ever signed here."

"We've been watching him since the ninth grade, and he's been in our camp every year. I feel like we've been recruiting him forever," Swinney said.

"It's going to be a lot of fun seeing him at this level. I think he'll be one of those guys when it's all said and done, just like this guy that's leaving right now, he'll leave his mark just like he did down in Gainesville."

While many have compared Watson to Boyd in terms of style and makeup, Miller has an even more impressive analog – Cam Newton. Miller faced off against the future Heisman Trophy winner and NFL No.1 pick while Newton was at Atlanta's Westlake High School, and said while Watson isn't as thick, he sees similarities in the way his pupil runs and throws.

"He is mobile," Miller said. "One of the thing DeShaun does best under pressure is moving in the pocket and finding someone open. He works well under pressure. Teams tried to blitz us. That didn't work. You miss a tackle, he's down the sideline, down the middle of the field. He moves well in the pocket and works to see receivers open.

"You can't teach a quarterback that. Under pressure he's always looking downfield. A young quarterback, under pressure, he's working the pocket, not looking downfield."

Miller also lauded Watson's toughness, noting that he didn't miss a down due to injury until his final game, when he strained a knee ligament in the Georgia AAAAA semifinals.

Watson's confidence grew as he matured.

"I knew my freshman year – my coaches told me that if I keep working, I'll go do big things," he told CUTigers.com. "But just stay humble and just make sure I stay out of trouble, I could go somewhere big. After my freshman year, I thought I did pretty decent, but I knew I could get better.

"My sophomore season, the stats (went) up and the offers started rolling in. That's when I knew I could make something happen..."

"My sophomore season, the stats (went) up and the offers started rolling in. That's when I knew I could make something happen, football can pay for my college degree. So that's when I started knowing I could go to the next level with it."

At the same time, Gainesville's coaches' confidence in Watson grew, too.

As a sophomore, Watson was given some latitude to call plays and change plays at the line. As a junior, Miller said, "we were pretty much hands-off."

As a senior? It was Watson's game.

"It was like, ‘OK, you're in control," Miller said. "We'll call some plays but if you don't like what it is, get out of it."

Miller said he'd never given that much freedom to a quarterback, including Gainesville alum Blake Sims, currently a backup at Alabama.

"He understood the game so well," Miller said of Watson. "Our quarterbacks coach, Michael Perry, did a good job of film study with him. He'd watch as much film as a college quarterback. He started for us for so long, it was like having a coach on the field. We'd give him all the latitude to check off. He proved he could be trusted. It was never about DeShaun. It was always about the team. He always made great decisions."

That knowledge extended beyond the field.

"He's a smart kid," Miller said. "He was a 3.7 GPA student in the classroom. He had it all. He was a little skinny freshman, and it was great to watch him develop and grow, how he handled everything, the attention he got. He handled it great. He's a very special kid."

Clemson's relationship with Watson developed early, too. Watson attended Clemson camps as a freshman and formed a bond with the Tigers' coaches that paid off with his early commitment.

Save an unofficial visit to Auburn last May, Watson never publicly wavered from his pledge.

"I've been real loyal to Clemson," he said. "That's the school that fits. I really stuck with it. I knew a long time ago that was probably the place I needed to be, not just from a football standpoint, but the community and the way I've been brought up in my household and around the town."

Miller said Clemson was a natural fit for Watson.

"If Cole wins the job, he'll be the starter," Swinney said. "If Chad wins the job, he'll be the starter. Is (Watson) good enough? Absolutely. It'll be a very competitive situation." (Roy Philpott)
"I think coach Swinney and coach (Chad) Morris did a great job recruiting him," he said. "They gave him a feeling of home. He's got a good home situation here, too. I think the style of offense they run (hurry-up, no-huddle) was very similar to what we did here. We've been a spread team the last seven years, we were a spread team all the way down since he was in sixth grade. It gives him a good chance to fit into the offense."

Watson said he has tried hard to "stay humble and not get a big head."

"That's the real hard part," he said. "But that's been pretty easy, just because of the way my mom raised me. I never had the big head. I always root for other people before I root for myself. So that's probably the hardest part. Just staying in control and staying focused on the little things, not worrying about the big things and getting ahead of yourself. I've done very well with that during my career. That's just something I've always been taught when I was growing up, how to handle."

He'll be stepping into a much larger spotlight this spring – facing off with rising senior Cole Stoudt and rising sophomore Chad Kelly to become the Tigers' next starting quarterback.

"It's huge," Swinney said of Watson's early enrollment. "It gives him a realistic chance. Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly are unique players. I believe they're both next-level players. But regardless of what happens with the quarterback situation, for (Watson) to be able to come in and go through spring ball, it gives him a much better opportunity as an elite talent.

"He's an elite person with great work ethic who's very smart. His football IQ is big."

Miller thinks he has all the tools to become a great collegiate quarterback.

"If he stays healthy, who knows?" he said. "He's got all the tools it takes to throw the ball and win in college. The critical point is that he has to stay healthy. He's a tough kid. Throw that on top of (his abilities) and he's got it all."

Swinney is just ready to get Watson on a practice field and find out what Miller already knows.

"He's a great prospect. Everything you could possibly want in a quarterback. Great leader, a winner," Swinney said. "He's got an incredible skill set, especially for what we do. He fits our system perfectly. We're really excited to have him come be a part of our program."

Can he earn the starting role as a true freshman? It won't be easy to earn trust and overtake more experienced competitors, but Swinney isn't ruling him out.

"If Cole wins the job, he'll be the starter," Swinney said. "If Chad wins the job, he'll be the starter. Is (Watson) good enough? Absolutely. It'll be a very competitive situation."

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