Post and Courier
August 2, 2014

Clemson's quarterback of the future: DeShaun Watson

Posted: 12/23/2013 08:00 p.m.
Updated: 12/23/2013 09:00 p.m.


By Andrew Miller

Walt Snelling cried like a baby that night.

He can't remember the last time he cried so hard. Maybe it was the day he got married or perhaps at the births of his three children.

But as the final seconds ticked off the clock at the Georgia Dome last December and Snelling realized that Gainesville High School and his beloved Red Elephants were going to win their first state championship in more than a century, the tears began to fall and didn't stop the rest of the night.

Snelling, 77, describes that moment as "one of the greatest days of my life," and says it would not have been possible without one player: quarterback DeShaun Watson.

Watson, the nation's No. 1 high school quarterback prospect, will enroll at Clemson next month after verbally committing to play for the Tigers last February.

Snelling has been the public address announcer at Gainesville home football games for the past three decades. He was an offensive lineman for the Red Elephants in the early 1950s. The press box that sits high above Gruhn Field bears his name. He hasn't missed more than a handful of games since attending his first one in 1942.

Snelling has seen all the Red Elephants over the past 60 years. Watched the young, timid boys mature and grow into men. Seen those men have sons and grandsons of their own and return to Gruhn Field and watch them play. He knows what football means to a place like Gainesville, a city of 34,000 nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains on the banks of Lake Lanier, less than an hour's drive northeast of Atlanta.

Up until two years ago, Snelling was convinced that former quarterback Billy Lothridge was the best player ever to pull a Red Elephants jersey over his head. Lothridge played in the late 1950s for Gainesville and went on to star at Georgia Tech and play for legendary Yellow Jackets coach Bobby Dodd. In 1963, Lothridge finished second to Navy's Roger Staubach for the Heisman Trophy.

That was until he saw Watson.

"DeShaun is No. 1," Snelling said extending a chubby index finger into the air. "I didn't think I'd ever see anyone better than Billy Lothridge, but DeShaun is. DeShaun is the best."

The 6-3, 200-pound Watson certainly has the numbers to back up Snelling's boast. He finished his high school career with 13,077 passing yards and 155 touchdowns, both Georgia state records. He added 4,057 rushing yards and 59 more TDs. He also caught three TD passes.

Clemson connections

Three years before Watson led Gainesville to its first state title or became the nation's top-ranked high school quarterback, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney could see the talent.

The video game-like numbers would come later. Even back then, Swinney was convinced he'd found his "quarterback of the future."

Watson attended the Tigers' football camp as a freshman, and Swinney offered him a scholarship on the spot.

Clemson would be the first of more than 50 scholarship offers that Watson would receive during his freshman and sophomore years.

The fact that the Tigers offered him first stuck with Watson.

"They were with me from the very beginning," Watson said. "They believed in me. Coach Swinney never had any doubts that I could play in college. That meant a lot to me."

In 2011, the Tigers hired offensive coordinator Chad Morris. He and Watson developed a quick friendship and a strong bond. When Watson visits Clemson, he and Morris will have long talks and watch game film together. The conversations start out about football, but almost always drift to other subjects.

"He cares about me as a person and not just a football player," Watson said. "I feel like I'm a part of his family."

The feeling is mutual.

"I think the record speaks for itself," Morris said. "What he's done in Georgia and the records he's broken have been pretty remarkable, in just three years essentially. He's very talented, very athletic, and he's a playmaker. We're excited about him."

His relationship with Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is equally as strong.

"The guy is like a little brother to me," Boyd said. "A really humble kid, super intelligent, and I love the personality he has. It's more than football."

Watson should be a perfect fit for the Tigers' no-huddle, fast-break offense. It's nearly identical to the one he ran for four years in Gainesville.

"He's just a great prospect. A great leader and a winner," Swinney said. "He fits our system perfectly. We're excited to have him to come be a part of our program, no question about that."

Part of what attracted Watson to Clemson is the opportunity to play as a freshman. With the departure of Boyd, Watson will battle Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly for the starting job.

"I'm glad we're finally going to have him here, ready to watch him perform this spring," Morris said. "It's going to be very challenging for all of them this spring. It's going to be a great quarterback race."

Beginnings

Gainesville High School coach Bruce Miller can remember the first time he saw DeShaun Watson play.

Watson was a seventh-grader at Gainesville Middle School, where he was a wide receiver/running back and backup quarterback on a team dominated by eighth-graders. The middle school coach briefed Miller on the best eighth-graders on the field, and then pointed to Watson.

"He said, 'Coach, that's the best quarterback on the team,'" Miller said. "But he said he wasn't going to start him because he was only in the seventh grade. He said next year he'd be the starter."

Miller returned the following season and couldn't take his eyes off Watson. He was already a shade over 6 feet tall and could throw a football nearly 50 yards. When he tucked the ball under his arm, no one could seem to catch him.

"DeShaun is long, and he takes long strides when he runs," Miller said. "He kind of glides, so it doesn't look like he's running that fast or with much effort, but he never gets tackled from behind."

Watson took part in spring practice the following April at the high school. It became apparent almost from the first set of drills that Watson was the best quarterback on the team, and he hadn't even taken his first high school class.

In 40 years as a football coach, Miller had never started a freshman at quarterback. Watson would become the first.

His first start came against Buford, which was the top-ranked team in Georgia at the Class AA level. Watson threw for 189 yards and rushed for 80 more in a 40-19 loss.

Watson led the Red Elephants to a 10-2 record as a freshman. He threw for 2,088 yards and 17 touchdowns, and rushed for 569 yards and five touchdowns.

"Here was this 14-year-old kid playing against 17 and 18-year-olds, and most nights he was the best player on the field," Miller said.

Championship season

Watson was in the seventh grade when he made a bold prediction. While watching a Gainesville High School game with several friends, he said they were going to win a state championship with the Red Elephants.

Since 1905, the school had won 29 region titles and had always been a fixture in the state playoffs. Six times Gainesville had made it all the way to the state title game, and six times the Red Elephants had come home disappointed.

When Gainesville lost its final two games of the 2012 regular season, few thought the Red Elephants had a chance to win their first state title.

But the losses to Loganville (46-41) and Flowery Branch (35-34), the same high school that produced South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, might have been a blessing in disguise for Gainesville.

"We needed a wake-up call," Watson said. "I think those two losses brought us together as a team."

Watson put the team on his back and willed them to the state final. In five games during the state playoffs, Watson had 1,988 yards of total offense and was responsible for 27 touchdowns.

"I knew every week the games got bigger and bigger, and I had to play better and better," Watson said. "The bigger the stage, the better I want to play, and no stage is bigger than the Georgia Dome."

Only Ware County stood in the Red Elephants' way for a state title. Playing in front of a statewide television audience and the biggest crowd of his career, Watson made it look easy.

On the first play from scrimmage, Watson turned a missed blocking assignment into a signature moment. When his right guard missed a block, Watson faced a charging Ware County defensive lineman. He side-stepped the would-be tackler, eluded another tackler at the line of scrimmage and raced 68 yards before getting caught inside the 10-yard line.

"He took a busted play and made it into something special," Miller said. "That's not something you can coach, that's just God-given talent."

That play would set the tone for the rest of the game. Despite playing just three quarters, Watson finished with more than 400 yards of total offense in the Red Elephants' 49-13 victory.

"DeShaun was incredible during the playoffs," said Gainesville wide receiver/running back Jay Gaudlock. "He just wasn't going to let us lose. We jumped on his back and rode him all the way to a state championship."

The celebration lasted well into the next morning, and when the team buses finally pulled into Gainesville, the town turned out in force to honor its conquering heroes. They lined the streets leading to the high school.

"You look out the bus and see everyone," Watson said. "We have the best fans in the state. They stuck with us. Seeing them out on the street after the game, it's a feeling I can't put into words. It's one that I'll never forget."

Said Gainesville Mayor Bob Hamrick: "I don't think people outside this community realize what DeShaun means to this town. Obviously, he's a great quarterback and a great football player. He's such a great young man, too. He's as good a person as he is a football player."

Biggest test

Watson's character was tested his sophomore season, and the lessons he learned had nothing to do with football.

He came home after practice one day to find his mother - Deann Watson - sitting at the dining room table. Immediately, he knew something was wrong.

Deann, a single mother of four, told him she had been diagnosed with tongue cancer. The news shook Watson to his core.

"I couldn't believe it. It physically hurt me when she told me," he said.

Deann had surgery and underwent chemotherapy treatments that made it impossible for her to attend games during Watson's sophomore season. She sat home and listened to games on the radio.

Before each game, she sent a text message to Watson.

"She couldn't talk during my entire sophomore season," Watson said. "It only made me play that much harder."

Watson leaned heavily on his friends for support, including Gaudlock.

"You could tell it bothered him," Gaudlock said. "We all tried to keep his mind off it. I think football really helped take his mind off his mother."

In the summer of 2012, Deann was declared cancer free. She hasn't missed a game since.

"It's a big weight off my shoulders knowing that she's OK," Watson said. "I think it has made me stronger, it made me grow up quicker and become a man sooner. It makes me take my responsibilities with my family that much more seriously. They're the only family I've got."

Final chapter

DeShaun Watson wasn't able to get the Red Elephants back to the Georgia Dome this season.

Gainesville's quest for a second straight state title ended in the semifinals against Tucker, the state's No. 1 ranked team, in a 20-14 loss.

Watson hurt his knee in the fourth quarter against Tucker, spraining his MCL. The injury will keep him out of the Under Armour All-American Game on Jan. 2 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Watson is optimistic he'll be ready for the start of Clemson's spring practice in a couple of months.

Will Watson play as a true freshman next fall?

Probably not, says national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell.

"I think it's a perfect fit for both Clemson and DeShaun," said Farrell. "The offense he ran in high school is almost identical to one he's going to run at Clemson. I could see him being as productive as (Tajh) Boyd was when it's all said and done."

But, Farrell added, Watson would benefit from taking a redshirt season, as did Florida State's Jameis Winston and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.

"Look how it worked out for them," Farrell said.

Miller said it won't be the same next season without Watson.

"You don't replace DeShaun Watson," Miller said. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent. There's only one DeShaun Watson."