His teammates call him rookie, but ask anyone who has seen him play and they’re all likely to say the same thing: Gainesville High freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson is playing well beyond his years.
With a huge void left by the graduation of Blake Sims, who led the Red Elephants to the state title game last year and was twice named Class AAA’s Offensive Player of the Year, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Watson was named the starting quarterback prior to the season opener against Buford and he’s done nothing but improve since.
“He’s coming in and filling the shoes real good,” senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. “He’s just a freshman so you can’t expect him to do everything Blake did, but I can see in the future, he’ll be doing even better.”
The immediate future means the playoffs, which begin tonight when No. 5 Gainesville (9-1, No. 1 8-AAA) plays host to Haralson County (3-7, No. 4 6-AAA) at City Park Stadium.
If his first 10 games are any indication, Watson will be just fine in the postseason.
After throwing three interceptions in his first high school game, Watson finished the regular season second in the area with 1,759 yards passing, 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He’s also getting it done on the ground, rushing for 485 yards and four touchdowns on 77 attempts.
“Before the snaps against Buford, I had nerves and butterflies,” the 15-year-old signal caller said. “Everything was happening fast. But I came in that Sunday, watched film and I’ve improved since then and I have more confidence.”
That maturation is something Gainesville coach Bruce Miller knew would happen, which is one of the reasons he gave Watson the job over junior Stephen Mason and senior Mike Norman, who backed up Sims during his sophomore year.
“The main thing I asked was, ‘how can we put the best football team on the field,’” said Miller, who put Mason at wide receiver and Norman at cornerback. “Those moves made us stronger overall at every position. I don’t know if I was right, but I guessed right.”
He certainly did.
Mason leads the team with 439 receiving yards and his 23 receptions and five touchdowns are second to senior Michael Lorentz. Norman shored up a secondary that lost several key members from last year’s team and anchors a unit surrendering only 75.7 passing yards per game.
And then there’s Watson.
Given the keys to the high-powered Gainesville offense before he could get behind the wheel of a car, Watson’s play has impressed his coaches, opposing coaches, and most importantly, his teammates, who didn’t care that their championship chances were put in the hands of a freshman.
“I felt good because I saw what he could do and saw he was an athlete,” Johnson said. “You can put him anywhere on the field and he’d get the job done. That was cool with me.”
While his athleticism is what stands out to the casual observer, the reason for Watson’s success has nothing to do with his arm or legs, it has to do with his brain.
“Coach (Tyler) Perry got me ready,” said Watson, referring to his former middle school coach now at the high school.
“We ran the same exact plays, so when I came in the spring, I knew everything. I just had to get ready for the speed.”
That prior knowledge is the one major difference between Watson and his predecessor.
“Deshaun’s been in this offense for four years,” said Miller, who taught Sims the offense over the span of two years. “He knows a little bit more of what’s happening and that makes a lot of difference when he’s done it for so long.
“Either way, I’m fortunate to have two (quarterbacks) like them.”
While the comparisons to Sims are inevitable, Miller said he was never concerned with Watson trying to fill the shoes of last year’s Times Player of the Year.
“You think about that, but Deshaun’s his own person,” Miller said. “He’s low-key, he’s not big-headed and it’s not about Deshaun. It’s about the football team.”
And it’s about knowing what he has to do to help the team win, a characteristic Miller noticed over the summer at a passing camp featuring Class AAAAA teams like Camden County and Peachtree Ridge.
“Camden liked to beat him to death and it didn’t bother him,” Miller said. “He just stood in there and threw the ball and made the plays he needed to make.”
Just like his coach told him.
“Coach Miller says to stay back there and take the heat,” Watson said. “Sometimes I see the hole and take off, but I look to pass first before I run.”
Watson credits his offensive line for the ability to stay upright, and while he wasn’t exactly sure, he said he hasn’t been sacked since the North Hall game on Sept. 17.
“Every practice they tell me to believe in them and stay calm,” Watson said. “That gives me confidence to stay back there.”
The heavy-blitzing Rebels will test that confidence tonight, but the kid they call rookie is approaching his first playoff game with the mentality of a seasoned veteran.
“I just take it one game at a time and go out there and have fun,” Watson said. “We just have to go out there and play like it’s our last game.”