CLEMSON – “Game manager” has been the standard backhanded compliment to risk-averse quarterbacks.
Most wouldn’t attach that label to Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. His coaches do. So does another surprise source: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“My job is to manage the game. I do that every game,” Watson said Monday. “If I don’t manage the game, we’re going to lose.”
A dynamic playmaker in limited action as a freshman, a dark horse in the summertime Heisman Trophy discussion and voted the 2015 ACC Preseason Player of the Year, Watson has been an interesting evaluation halfway through his sophomore season for No. 6 Clemson.
Watson exchanged primary mentors, when his longtime recruiter and ex-offensive coordinator Chad Morris took the head coaching job at SMU and was replaced by former Richmond quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter. The plays are now called by running backs coach Tony Elliott, and the offense co-coordinated by wide receivers coach Jeff Scott.
Saturday’s 34-17 victory over Boston College, still the No. 1 total defense in the country even after Watson exploded for 452 total yards and four touchdowns, was a departure from the past month of what would be considered steady but unspectacular performances from the Tigers’ second-year quarterback.
“My job is to find the open receivers, make sure the running backs and receivers are on the same page with protection, the O-Line is motivated to open up holes for the running backs, and get points and get the W,” Watson said. “I don’t really care about having these big ‘wow’ plays and big stats.”
Watson does lead the ACC with 14 touchdown passes, but the flipside of Watson’s statline does have head coach Dabo Swinney a bit concerned: Watson’s seven interceptions.
Not all of his picks have been Watson’s fault, but the bottom line is the Tigers have lost 12 turnovers – tied for the most in the ACC – and of the remaining 14 unbeaten FBS teams, Clemson is one of two with a negative turnover margin. Clemson and Ohio State each have one more giveaway than takeaway.
“Probably the biggest disappointment for me is our turnover margin,” Swinney said. “Man, I’m really frustrated right now. That’s a recipe for disaster. We’ve got to get that corrected.”
In four record-setting years at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, according to MaxPreps statistics, Watson threw 29 interceptions among 1,458 passing attempts – a rate of 50.3 throws per interception. In 2014, Watson was picked just twice in 137 tries, or one pick per 68.5 attempts as a rookie who played in eight games and started five.
Through six games in 2015, the rate has skidded – Watson averages one interception per 24.3 attempts, and has thrown one in each of his last five outings.
“At this position, you’re going to throw picks,” Watson said. “No one’s perfect. It happens. The first one (Saturday vs. BC) was all me, they read my eyes – but the second one I got hit and the ball floated. It’s something I can’t really control. It happens.”
The interceptions aside, Watson has shown growth as a quarterback, such as on 3rd-and-17 with 8:23 remaining and a 27-10 lead in Saturday’s victory.
The Tigers presented a 5-wide formation, and the initial plan was to have Watson draw and set up for a punt. But Watson read the Eagles’ defense and sent an audible to true freshman receiver Deon Cain, a deep threat who was lined up in the slot.
Although Cain had not run that particular route before, he ran 17 yards to the first-down marker and turned around to find Watson deliver a spiral into his chest. Cain wheeled and raced for a 67-yard reception that helped nail the coffin on a BC comeback bid.
Sophomore Artavis Scott’s 51-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was also a check made on the fly by Watson.
“Obviously we’re playing fast, so we’re not a true ‘check’ team that tries to get us out of one play and into another play,” Jeff Scott said. “But if he sees things, he has freedom to make those checks. It’s like having another coach on the field.”