CLEMSON – Deshaun Watson was mid-sentence, and the media member who had asked Clemson’s soon-to-be junior quarterback the question couldn’t help himself.
“You looked in midseason form on a couple of passes already,” gushed the inquirer within the hallway where Clemson conducts postgame interviews underneath the west-side bleachers of Memorial Stadium.
Watson, still his shy self even after setting records and finishing third in last season’s Heisman Trophy voting, sheepishly responded, “Appreciate that.”
Barely breaking a sweat during his four series of work in Clemson’s spring scrimmage, Watson looked like he was ready for the real thing as he flicked two touchdown passes to sophomore receivers Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud. Those two scores were the difference in the Orange squad’s 17-9 victory over the White squad in front of a record estimated crowd of 50,500 fans inside Death Valley.
Watson quarterbacked two possessions for each squad – the two rosters were split evenly in terms of first-string and second-string players – and both drives with the Orange team resulted the way Watson expects them this fall when the Tigers’ offense hopes to rewrite chapters in the school’s and sport’s recordbooks.
On the second play of the scrimmage, Watson completed a long ball to Renfrow, who was a walk-on this time a year ago but caught two touchdown passes in the national championship game vs. Alabama on Jan. 11, for 47 yards. That drive resulted in Watson going back to Renfrow for a 4-yard score.
Late in the first quarter, Watson needed just two plays to engineer a 79-yard touchdown drive. He found walk-on Seth Ryan in tight coverage for 18 yards, then had McCloud – back from a knee injury last fall – wide open down the opposite sideline for 61 yards and six points.
“It went pretty well. Everybody came out and competed on both sides of the ball, on both teams,” Watson said. “I think we did what we wanted to do. We split up the teams, and saw guys can go out there and compete.”
Watson’s total statistics: 7-for-11, 141 yards and two scores. His two White drives were not fruitful (2-for-5, one yard), but he helped McCloud rediscover his skills with a game-high 98 receiving yards on three grabs.
“It was hard for me, my first time being injured like that,” McCloud said. “Still got little stuff I’ve got to get right, but other than that, I’m using all the time that we get off resting and going to treatment and working out, it’s getting a lot better.”
McCloud missed three games in November with the bad knee, and hopes to improve on his 299 total yards as a freshman in 2015.
“I had to get back to myself,” he said, “because I’ve been hurt for so long.”
Another sophomore back from a knee injury, Adam Choice, led the Tigers with 88 yards on 17 carries. Tight end Cannon Smith hauled in a 7-yard catch from Nick Schuessler for the White squad’s lone touchdown, while Trevion Thompson led White with six catches for 87 yards.
Marcus Edmond and Ryan Carter each picked off Orange quarterback Kelly Bryant in the first half.
With spring practices concluded, Clemson players are on their own for summer workouts before resuming sessions with the coaches next fall. Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said pain stemming from the title loss to Alabama continues to fuel the Tigers.
“I don’t think it will ever wear off,” Wilkins said. “To get that close to a national championship and then lose it, that just drives me every day thinking about it. As a competitor, I hate losing. I’m not for that at all. That’s going to drive me every day to push my teammates to their limit as well.”
Clemson figures to enter 2016 ranked in the top five, if not at or near the top of preseason polls. The season opens Sept. 3 at Auburn.
“We’re not a great team yet. But we’ve just got to be a team that’s working toward great right now,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got a lot of guys back on offense, we have a lot of youth and inexperience on defense – but good people, and young people that care. Absolutely, if we work this summer and have the type of camp we need, we’ll be in the mix.”
Swinney has reached a new deal with Clemson’s administration, which is expected to be approved by the school’s board of trustees at a quarterly meeting Tuesday morning.
The contract terms have not been released. In January 2014, Swinney agreed to an eight-year, $27.15 million deal, and Swinney’s performance bonuses neared $1 million (on top of his $3.3 million salary) during last fall’s run to the College Football Playoff national championship game.
Per his old contract, Swinney would have been scheduled to earn $3.45 million plus bonuses for each of the next six seasons. His 2015 salary of $3.3 million ranked No. 26 among college football head coaches, according to USA Today Sports.