CLEMSON — From the moment Deshaun Watson swapped a headset for a helmet, his impact on the entire Clemson team was profound.
It’s easy and sensible to point to Watson’s first career touchdown pass back in August 2014, an absolute dart to Charone Peake in what would become a 24-point loss at Georgia that looked every bit like a Sunday throw. What’s perhaps more lost in Watson’s freshman season contributions can’t be defined by a statsheet: the entire team seemed to play better when he’s in the game, particularly in the close loss at then-No. 1 Florida State.
Of course, Watson’s insane 2015 season can be quantified by his becoming the first Division I quarterback to combine 4,000 passing yards with 1,000 rushing yards — and with it, 14 wins for the first time in Clemson’s history.
It goes without saying Watson is capable of some more phenomenal feats in 2016. It goes without saying it will be tremendously difficult to replicate those numbers.
The area where Watson could realize the greatest growth: direct leadership of a team. Certainly, the admiration from his peers is not lacking. (Again, watch the 2014 Florida State tape and see the Tigers’ entire team instantly play better once Watson supplanted Cole Stoudt).
But this spring, in the same breath as acknowledging Watson’s junior season will likely be his last at Clemson, head coach Dabo Swinney evoked a way he’d like to see Watson improve before the NFL gets a hold of him.
“The biggest thing for him is really asserting himself,” Swinney said. “He’s (personally) going to go above and beyond everything you ask of him, always. But there are times — especially with his role now and the respect he has — we really want him to grab a guy and pull him. Because we’re going to need that all summer. He’s in a position where he can really lead this football team. We want him to take advantage of that respect — for the entire team, not just the offensive guys.”
Translation: if a teammate is slacking off, fix the problem. The thing about championship leadership? It’s filled with imperfections. For all of the athletic greatness in Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning or LeBron James, there is no blueprint to become an ideal alpha dog.
Although there are numerous veterans in key positions, Clemson is a young team up and down the roster. It’s on Watson to guide the Tigers one step further than last year, while bearing the weight of an entire program and fanbase soaking in what is likely his last six months as a Tiger.
“We do have to build some depth with some young guys,” Watson said, “but at the end of the day, you still have to go perform no matter what year you are and how much experience you have. If you’re a ball player, then you can go out there and perform. That’s why you came to college to play football.”