When the Clemson Tigers opened up spring football practices earlier this month, there was an unexpected presence on their sideline.
After Deshaun Watson’s surgery to repair his left ACL this past December, the fear was that 9-12 months of rehab would make a 2015 return questionable. So when he showed up to do some light jogging and throwing on the opening day of practice, it appeared as if Watson was dramatically ahead of schedule much to the elation of the Clemson fans.
Head coach Dabo Swinney has reinforced that line of thinking consistently throughout the winter, and with Watson currently sitting roughly a month ahead of his rehab schedule, it appears as if an opening week return on Sept. 5 against Wofford is entirely plausible, if not likely. And that’s big news for a program that’s pinning a lot of expectations on the talented rising sophomore.
Of course, that’s no revelation to Watson.
When Watson arrived on campus as an early enrollee in January of 2014, he was immediately viewed as the heir to the Tajh Boyd throne. Boyd had just finished up a three-year stretch when he was 32-8 as a starter and he’d been one of the most prolific players not only in Clemson’s history but in ACC history, as well.
Watson was a slender high four-star dual-threat quarterback prospect from Georgia with offers from Auburn, Florida State and Alabama to his name. Many considered him to be the best dual-threat QB in the country and he was a consensus Top-100 player nationally.
The succession seemed natural. Boyd would graduate and ride off into the NFL sunset, and then, with Boyd’s success having played a large role in Watson’s recruitment, the incoming freshman would ultimately take over where he left off. Clemson, like most great programs do, would have a smooth transition at the most influential position in the sport–perhaps all of sports.
When Cole Stoudt, who patiently waited his turn behind Boyd, competed for reps throughout the spring and into the fall, there was some pushback, but the presumption was that Stoudt’s presence would push Watson. It wasn’t exactly a complete surprise when Stoudt started the opener against Georgia, but as the pair split reps and Stoudt continued to start despite Watson significantly outperforming him, things began to get tense.
However, by the fourth drive of the Florida State game, it was clear that Watson was not only the more talented player but the more reliable option. He’d finish that tight loss to Florida State and then take over full-time the following week against North Carolina.
After 435 yards and six touchdowns in a win over the Tar Heels, Clemson fans officially had their Boyd replacement. He’d follow that performance up with 329 yards of total offense and four total touchdowns in a 41-0 shutout of North Carolina State.
Unfortunately, the following week against Louisville, Watson would break a bone in his right hand, missing the next three games of the season as Clemson defaulted back to Stoudt, who played better during that stretch. Then, when he returned from injury against Georgia Tech, he had to leave with a knee injury.
Two weeks later, he returned, noticeably hobbled to lead an impressive 35-17 victory over their rivals in the Palmetto State, the South Carolina Gamecocks. As it turned out, his 14-of-19 performance for 269 yards passing and four total touchdowns came on a torn ACL.
He sat out the bowl game and now, three months after the surgery, the buzz is that he might be able to make the quick nine-month turnaround to be ready for Clemson’s 2015 opener. And despite starting just three games in 2014 and coming back from a knee reconstruction, he’s been tabbed by many preseason award watch lists as one of the top returning quarterbacks in the nation.
If he’s healthy enough to go, his presence in Chad Morris’ offense will go a long way in deflecting from the fact that the Tigers have to replace seven starters on defense next fall. With that expected learning curve, Clemson may have to win some shootouts early against a sneaky good Appalachian State squad on Sept. 12 before a quick turnaround to play Louisville the next Thursday on the road.
Then, the Tigers have Notre Dame coming to Death Valley off a bye week on Oct. 3 for what could be a prime-time matchup. That’ll be the ultimate early-season test for Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers, as they don’t draw Florida State until November.
If Clemson is to contend for an ACC crown in 2015, they’ll need Deshaun Watson at full health sooner rather than later with the Notre Dame game looking like the beginning of a stretch where they’ll need him most. The fact that he’s a month ahead of schedule lends well to that, but it’ll be interesting to see how Clemson balances not rushing him onto the field with their need for his presence early in the season.