CLEMSON — Poise in the pocket, Deshaun Watson has always presented. Even more unnaturally for a 19-year-old with a world of potential, he shows even less bristle during the most arduous of injury rehabilitations.
Saturday’s Orange-White spring game marked the 30th consecutive practice — 15 bowl, 15 spring — for which Watson was inactive.
The last time Clemson’s precocious quarterback put on the pads was in the act of snapping South Carolina’s five-game winning streak against the Tigers back on Nov. 29, with a partially torn ACL in his right knee that would be surgically repaired on Dec. 12.
Watson has lived a charmed football life, but as someone who’s faced his share of real-life adversity — namely, his mother’s battle with tongue cancer — he’s taking this timeout from the field in stride.
“I wouldn’t say it’s too difficult, because I can handle adversity,” Watson said after the Tigers’ spring game. “I’ve handled that in my life before. I just don’t take every day for granted.
“Being knocked down and trying to stay up and move forward is something you can apply to your life.”
Watson was knocked down three different times in 2014: a broken collarbone in late March (forcing him to miss last year’s spring game, too); a broken finger Oct. 11 vs. Louisville, robbing him of three games and some dark-horse Heisman talk; and a knee injury Nov. 15 at Georgia Tech, which led to a partially-torn ACL the following week in practice.
Therefore, Watson’s health is the most pressing question Clemson has to answer this offseason, and by all accounts, he’s progressing nicely.
Four months after surgery, Watson is throwing and jogging without labor, and will soon begin a weightlifting and conditioning program.
“Whatever (team trainer) Danny Poole wants me to do, I’m going to try to do it,” Watson said. “If I can go, then I’ll go.”
Without a hard deadline for Watson to check off every point on his rehab to-do list, Watson, Poole and team surgeon Dr. Larry Bowman are in no hurry.
“Not at all. Just day to day. I don’t want to rush anything,” Watson said. “I’ll come back whenever I’m ready, and whenever that time is will be the right time.”
While Watson watched from the sideline Saturday, his teammates reaped the benefits of extra attention and opportunities. Nick Schuessler, the former walk-on not deemed fit to supplant the struggling Cole Stoudt at quarterback late last fall, earned rave reviews from coaches culminating in an impressive spring game (11-of-17 passing for 201 yards and two touchdowns).
“It’s very good that Nick had this opportunity,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said, “because throughout the course of the season, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Then there’s the true freshmen, Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel, who won’t be asked to contribute as teenagers the way Watson was in 2014 — but remain a priority for Clemson’s future. Head coach Dabo Swinney said “no, no, heck, no” when asked if he had a feel for who might redshirt in 2015.
“We’ve got so far to go to September,” Swinney said. “All four of those guys need to go into the summer thinking they’re the starter, and they need to prepare that way.”
For his part, Watson’s not yet comfortable playing the role of wise old veteran.
“When (Bryant and Israel) ask questions, I don’t want to say too much. Just let them go out there and play their game,” Watson said. “I just told them to have fun.”
Returning players Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman and others accounted for 85 percent of Clemson’s catches, 92 percent of the Tigers’ receiving yards and 100 percent of the 23 receiving touchdowns in 2014.
“I have talent all around me,” Watson said. “My job is to get them the ball and let them do the rest.”