All-State Football Team
Just hours after winning the Class AAAAA state championship on Dec. 14, Gainesville High junior quarterback Deshaun Watson sent a text message to his position coach Michael Perry.
Watson first wanted to thank the Red Elephants’ quarterbacks coach for helping him grow personally and on the football field. Then he turned the page to his expectations for next season.
“When he sent me the text message the day after the championship game, he said he’s going to try to be better next season,” Perry said.
After a junior season like Watson had in 2012, capped with a dazzling five-touchdown night and Gainesville’s first state championship in school history, saying he plans to improve is saying something.
This year, Watson became the state’s new all-time career leader in passing yards (9,360), touchdown passes (108) and all-purpose TDs (155).
He’s also the 2012 Georgia Associated Press All-Classification Player of the Year.
Watson improved in every category in 2012, passing for 4,011 yards and 50 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,430 yards and 24 more trips to the end zone. He also became only the second quarterback in state history to throw 50 touchdowns in a single season, just shy of Hutson Mason’s 54 for Lassiter High in 2009.
“I haven’t thought too much about all the records yet,” Watson said. “I know that all the individual accomplishments were a result of having a great offensive line in front of me and talented wide receivers to throw the ball to.
“It’s a result of all the hard work we put in.”
His playoff run this season was one for the books. In five games, including a come-from-behind victory against Kell in the second round, Watson accounted for 1,988 yards of offense and 27 touchdowns.
In every game, he finished with at least 300 yards of offense, highlighted by 427 passing yards (572 total yards) and eight total touchdowns in the state quarterfinals against Harris County. Then, under the lights of the Georgia Dome and in front of a statewide television audience in the Class AAAAA championship, he picked up more than 400 yards of offense against Ware County.
“I knew that every week I had to play better in the playoffs,” Watson said. “As the stage gets bigger, I think I play better.”
Still, Watson’s not done leaving a legacy that may never again be matched by a Gainesville High quarterback.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller — who has coached for 40 years — says that Watson is already the best he’s coached in his career. The Red Elephants’ coach says that Watson has an understanding of the game and grasp of the terminology that is right in line with his physical tools to take over a football game.
“Things have really slowed down for him at this point in his high school career,” Miller said. “It’s like a hitter that’s in the zone and the ball seems that much bigger coming out of the pitcher’s hand.”
Watson capped his season with one of his best throws, a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of the state championship win against the Gators. He managed to throw a dart right into the hands of a tightly-guarded Caleb Hayman in the end zone for Gainesville’s first score during their big win at the Georgia Dome.
“Sometimes when I watch and see certain throws he makes, I just have to sit back and say ‘Wow,’” Perry said.
Not surprisingly, Gainesville’s record-setting quarterback is the target of many Division-I college programs, and he has all the physical tools. His arm is strong and he throws laser-like spirals. His feet are fast. And he has an advanced decision-making ability in the heat of battle.
This season, Watson completed 70 percent of his passes (305 of 434), well ahead of the 59 percent of throws he completed in 2011.
Even though Watson is verbally committed to Clemson University for college, he’s still lined up a number of college visits, including Louisiana State, Ohio State, Auburn, Florida State and Tennessee. Then in the summer, he’ll take in campus visits at Southern Cal and Oregon.
Gainesville’s quarterback coach says that everything Watson accomplishes starts with all the time he spends in the film room. Five days a week, Watson watches film an hour every day before school, and also watches film regularly during the offseason and summer.
Watson’s accomplishments are even more impressive considering he works out of a no-huddle spread offense. Decisions have to be made quick to avoid taking a big loss or hard hits.
“Deshaun works so hard,” Perry said. “He really loves to watch film.”
Not only does he flourish in Gainesville’s system, he makes others better. This season, the Red Elephants had six receivers with at least 30 catches (Rodney Lackey, Tray Harrison, Caleb Hayman, Michael Byrd, Jay Gaudlock and Lahius Leverette).
“The great players seem to find a way to make those around them better, too,” Miller said.
Perry knows exactly the point when he knew Watson was going to be special. At the end of Watson’s eighth grade year, he left a lasting impression during spring practice. Leading one offense, and staring across the line at All-State linebacker and rising senior A.J. Johnson, the young quarterback not only showed he could hold his own, but also won.
Watson has also never been rattled by hard hits. His freshman season, Gainesville went to a passing camp at West Georgia University. There Gainesville faced some of the state’s best defenders from Camden County and North Gwinnett, among others. Regularly he took hard hits. Never did it seem to matter.
“He would just shrug it off and keep going,” Perry said.