I asked Shawn Watson a throwaway question at the end of media day on Aug. 8.
“Can Trey Holtz play at this level?” I asked Texas’ assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. “Why would you ask me that?” Watson asked, smiling, almost as if I was asking him a trick question.
And then he caught himself.
“I would never put limitations on a player, because if I did, Joel Klatt wouldn’t have been the all-time leading passer in Colorado history,” Watson said.
(More on Klatt in a second.)
Minutes later, David Ash is telling me how Watson “clicks with most every player.”
“He’s demanding,” Ash continues. “He makes you chase perfection, and he’ll coach Trey Holtz as hard as he coaches myself.
“He’s very into making sure we’ve all got it right. He’s not egotistical. He just wants everyone to understand the offense. And he’ll teach it until we get it right. For the most part, he’s pretty patient as a teacher.”
The relationship between Watson and Ash may be the most important coach-player relationship on the 2014 Texas Longhorns.
Watson doesn’t waste time trying to make Ash into something he’s not. He simply finds ways to connect with Ash.
“Shawn Watson is so passionate about the game and so passionate about teaching the game so that everyone understands it that he’ll just keep finding ways to connect until he connects,” Klatt told me recently.
“He’s probably the perfect teacher for David Ash if Ash is a guy who doesn’t respond well to screaming or sarcasm. Watson really cares about his players. And as long as those players are giving him everything they have, he’ll be there all night for them.”
Klatt was lightly recruited in football because he was a baseball prospect drafted in the 11th round out of high school by the San Diego Padres. After two years of baseball, Klatt walked on at Colorado, where he became a three-year starter and continues to hold the career record for completion percentage (60.8, 2002-05).
“I owe everything to Shawn Watson,” Klatt said. “The guy knows the game inside and out and builds confidence in his quarterbacks. That’s what he did with me, and we had a lot of success. We played in the Big 12 title game in 2002, 2004 and 2005.
“But Shawn was also the offensive coordinator at Colorado in 2001, when CU beat Texas in the Big 12 title game.”
Watson did some of his finest work under Gary Barnett at Colorado, including the 2001 season.
After losing to Texas 41-7 in Austin, when Colorado’s offense turned it over three times, the Buffs got better as the season wore on and handed Nebraska a 62-36 loss in Boulder to clinch the Big 12 North title and a rematch against Texas in the league title game.
CU went 5-2 against ranked opponents that season, including upsets of No. 12 Kansas State, No. 2 Nebraska and No. 3 Texas.
If Texas beats Colorado at Texas Stadium in Irving, the Longhorns would have earned the right to play the Miami Hurricanes for the national title that year.
But Watson didn’t outthink himself. Running back Chris Brown had the hot hand, and Watson rode it – giving Brown 33 carries for 182 yards (5.5 ypc) and 3 touchdowns en route to a 39-37 victory.
There were Big 12 title game appearances for Colorado in 2004 and 2005 with Watson as offensive coordinator as well. When Barnett was fired as coach at CU after the 2005 season, Watson went to Nebraska to join Bill Callahan, whom Watson worked with at Illinois under Mike White.
At the time, Barnett said he was glad Watson was going to Nebraska, because, “The fans will appreciate him there.”
But Callahan did all the play-calling while head coach from 2004-07 before getting let go after the 2007 season.
Nick Saban called on Watson as a potential replacement for Major Applewhite at Alabama after the 2007 season, but Watson decided to stay at Nebraska and work for Bo Pelini.
“We didn’t really offer it to him (Watson),” Saban said at the time. “We called and asked for permission to talk to him, and he decided to stay at Nebraska.”
At that time, Applewhite had just made $250,000 as offensive coordinator at Alabama for the 2007 season, and Watson had made $225,000 at Nebraska in the same role. Watson would ultimately replace Applewhite - seven years later in Austin.
Watson is now making $650,000 as assistant head coach and QB coach at Texas, where he replaced Applewhite, who earned $625,000 last season.
Watson's next three years at Nebraska under Pelini would be full of ups and downs.
In 2008, Watson had a solid QB in Joe Ganz (67.9 percent comp rate; 25 TDs; 11 INTs); solid RB in Roy Helu (803 yards rushing; 6.4 ypc; 7 TDs); and a solid WR corps, led by Nate Swift (63 catches, 941 yards, 10 TDs).
But Nebraska’s 2008 defense gave up 28.5 ppg and surrendered 35 points in a 35-30 loss to Virginia Tech; 52 points in a 52-17 loss to Missouri; 37 points in a 37-31 OT loss at Texas Tech; and 62 points in a 62-28 loss at OU.
In 2009, Nebraska’s defense went from worst to first, giving up just 10. 4 ppg, anchored by future NFL Draft picks DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Jared Crick, LB Larry Asante and DB Prince Amukamara.
But Watson found himself without an answer at QB.
Zac Lee threw 8 interceptions and 0 touchdowns while completing just 54 percent of his passes in losses at Virginia Tech (16-15), at home to Texas Tech (31-10), at home to Iowa State (9-7) and in the Big 12 title game against Texas (13-12).
If the Huskers could have produced another FG in three of those four losses, they would have been 13-1.
In 2010, Watson scrapped his West Coast, pro-style mentality and moved to an offense featuring the QB run game because of freshman Taylor Martinez, whose running through the first five games that season was record-setting.
Then came Texas.
The Longhorns stunned NU 20-13 as Garrett Gilbert, not Martinez, did damage on the ground. Gilbert ran for 71 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Martinez (13 carries for 21 yards; 4-of-12 passing for 63 yards) was benched for Zac Lee (10 carries for 25 yards; 4-of-9 passing for 14 yards).
In a 9-6 loss at Texas A&M, Martinez left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury after a Nebraska offensive lineman stepped on him. Cody Green replaced Martinez and was ineffective. Martinez returned to the game but couldn’t lead a scoring drive.
Heading into the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma, there was talk that if the Huskers’ won, Watson could be named the head coach at Vanderbilt (the job ultimately given to James Franklin).
Nebraska got up 17-0 with 12:41 left in the second quarter and then was outscored 23-3 by the Sooners the rest of the way.
Nebraska would go on to lose to Washington 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl, and Watson was looking for work.
Watson was hired by Charlie Strong at Louisville in 2011 as QBs coach under offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Four games into the 2011 season, with the Cardinals at 2-2, Strong replaced Sanford with Watson. The team finished 7-6 with true freshman Teddy Bridgewater at QB.
The next two seasons, with Watson coaching Bridgewater, Louisville went 23-3 with bowl victories over Florida in the Sugar and over Miami (Fla) in the Russell Athletic.
Still, Texas fans weren’t excited about the idea of Watson as the offensive play-caller for the Longhorns under Strong. Fans were hoping for Clemson OC Chad Morris or Ohio State OC Tom Herman.
But Strong ultimately retained Watson.
Now, it appears Watson’s professor-like personality is connecting with David Ash.
Joe Wickline will bring his teaching technique to the inside and outside zone running game, which should help open holes for RBs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. A strong running game will be Ash’s best friend.
When Watson has had a veteran quarterback to work with as well as a solid running back his offenses have put up good numbers.
In 2001, he had senior QB Bobby Pesavento, running backs Chris Brown and Bobby Purify, and Colorado averaged 33 ppg en route to the a Big 12 title.
In 2008, he had senior QB Joe Ganz, RB Roy Helu Jr., and Nebraska averaged 35.4 ppg.
In 2012, he had junior QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Dominique Brown, and Louisville averaged 31.2 ppg.
In 2013, he had Bridgewater as a senior, RBs Dominique Brown, Senorise Perry and Michael Dyer, and Louisville averaged 35.2 ppg.
In 2014, Watson will be working with a four-year QB in Ash as well as RBs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray on an offense that averaged 29.3 ppg last year.
The common-sense approach is that Texas will need to average more than 30 points per game this season to keep up with the prolific offenses of the Big 12 (Baylor averaged 52.4 ppg last season; OU 32.8 ppg; OSU 39.1 ppg; K-State 33. 2 ppg; Tech 35.8 ppg).
History says when Watson has a veteran cast to work with, his offense’s point total goes up. And that’s what he’ll be working with at key positions in Austin in 2014.
HD Analysis: The journey of Shawn Watson
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