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Gainesville QB Watson living up to expectations

POSTED: November 29, 2012 12:23 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson looks to flip the ball to running back Michael Byrd during the Red Elephants' loss to Flowery Branch.

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Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said he never dreamed of starting a freshman quarterback against Buford, the Class AA defending state champions, in the opening game of the 2010 season.

That was before Deshaun Watson.

The freshman Watson, taking over for the just-graduated and Alabama-bound Blake Sims for the 2010 season, and the Red Elephants lost that game 40-19. However, that kind of outcome has been rare since Watson took the helm.

The Red Elephants (9-3) have only lost six games since then, and are on the verge of a second consecutive trip to the state semifinals if they can get past Harris County (8-4) on Friday in Hamilton.

Watson is a big reason why.

“The things he brings to our team are pretty incredible,” said Miller, the longtime Gainesville coach. “For a high school kid to be able to check off receivers, to do the things he does, he’s just amazing.”

This season the 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior has accounted for 61 total touchdowns and has surpassed 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing for the second consecutive season.

Against Kell in the second round, Watson threw for three touchdowns and ran for five more in a 61-42 win. He also played snaps on defense, something he’s done on a limited basis since the 35-34 loss to Flowery Branch, when he lined up against the Falcons’ top receiver, 6-2 senior Jamaad Stephens, close to the end zone.

It’s little wonder that he was long ago on the radar of the recruiting sites — he’s a four-star recruit according to — and he verbally committed to Clemson last season.

Talk to players and coaches at Gainesville, and it hasn’t gone to his head.

“He’s laid back, humble, doesn’t brag or anything,” said senior wide receiver Lahius Leverette, who has been out since injuring his leg in the regular season finale against Flowery Branch. “He always gives the line and the receivers credit, because he can’t do what he does unless we do what we have to do.”

Miller said that Watson knowing his role in Gainesville’s spread offense is such a big reason as to why he’s progressed as far as he has.

“He’s been in this offense since seventh grade,” the coach said. “Now he understand even more the concepts of what we’re trying to do.

“He sees the game from a whole different perspective than most high school kids.”

Leverette played with Watson back in middle school and youth football, and said the two talked then about being a Michael Vick, Roddy White combo like the Atlanta Falcons once had.

Watson, though, didn’t start to become a true dual-threat quarterback until his sophomore season.

“As a freshman we made it simple for him and just let him throw,” Miller said. “And he ran if he had to.”

Miller said that after Watson’s freshman season the coaches got together and said Watson wasn’t running enough, so they conceived more designed runs for him.

Watson still looks at himself as a pass-first quarterback, however, and has focused on improving on his skills in the pocket.

“I like to get my legs going. If the pass isn’t there, I can take off and gain some yards,” he said. “But I like to pass first.”

His wide receivers like it too.

“The ball is more spread out (than a traditional offense) and all of us our capable of making plays,” said Leverette, who also said Watson has gotten much more accurate this season.

Still, while stats-wise he’s ahead of last season at this point, he still needs one more win to match the team’s performance from last year, when the Red Elephants upset Sandy Creek 35-21 in the quarterfinals before falling to Burke County 63-28 in the semifinals.

While Harris County isn’t regarded at all like Sandy Creek was last season, Watson said Gainesville’s three regular season losses have taught the team not to overlook any opponent, no matter the record.

The coaching staff has backed that idea up by going all in for the postseason, playing Watson not just as a defender on limited snaps but also on special teams as a threat to return.

“When we get to the playoffs, it’s time to win it or shut up,” said Miller, who added that Sims was also used in an expanded role in the postseason.

Watson doesn’t mind.

“They gave me a heads-up (before the Flowery Branch game) that I would be playing some defensive back, and I told them to play me anywhere they need me,” Watson said.

And Watson, who has yet to miss a game with injury in his high school career, has been up to the task of staying on the field more often. Miller said he doesn’t shy away from the weight room and has not just added a few inches of height during his time at Gainesville, but a lot of muscle.

It comes in handy when he breaks from the pocket, as well.

“Sometimes you’ll hear the coaches on the headsets saying get down, but Deshaun doesn’t understand that,” Miller said. “His desire to win and to get the most out of every play scares us sometimes.”

But that’s a lot of the reason as to why Watson has Gainesville back in the state quarterfinals, even after a season that didn’t always go according to plan, one that lacked a region championship after four straight titles, and included the most regular season losses since 2007.

“As he goes, we go on offense,” Miller said. “In the county he’s a hero, and he’s got a lot to live up to.

“When we lose, him and me get a lot of the blame, but the expectations are there and I’m glad they are. When expectations are there, you strive to fulfill them.”

Watson doesn’t mind the pressure.

“I don’t really pay attention to the pressure, I just go about my business,” he said. “But that’s the reason I play quarterback; I can handle the pressure.”


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