MAULDIN, S.C. — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson isn’t focused on the praise and honors coming his way, no matter how high they pile up this offseason.
The 19-year-old sophomore was voted the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year this week, picked to lead his Tigers to the league championship. He was named the ACC’s first-team quarterback and to the Manning Award watch list, an honor that goes each year to the best quarterback in college football.
And, oh yes, there is the rising Heisman Trophy buzz for a player limited to eight games last year because of his youth and injuries.
Watson’s not concerned about any of it, just calmly leading the Tigers game by game and possession by possession.
“That’s not my main focus right now,” Watson said Thursday. “I’m making sure that I’m 100 percent healthy and that my team is ready for camp and we’ve got the right players focused on the right things.”
Watson had a star-crossed freshman season. When he was on the field, he put on a dazzling and unstoppable display as he threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in parts of eight games. But he missed five games as a freshman due to injuries to his throwing hand and his knee.
Watson played with a torn ACL — his left knee was covered by a strong brace — in a 35-17 win over rival South Carolina, which had come into the last contest having won an unprecedented five rivalry games in a row. Soon after, Watson had surgery and missed Clemson’s 40-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The questions about Watson’s surgically repaired knee come as often as his preseason accolades. Watson said he’s completely healthy and able to do everything he has done in the past without worry of re-hurting things.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney won’t alter the playbook to protect Watson’s health.
“You can’t worry about that,” Swinney said. “That’s just ball. Things happened. Can’t play this game tip-toeing around and worried about if some guy gets hurt.”
Watson, though, has the potential to be much more than some guy.
He completed nearly 68 percent of his passes last season, finishing with a quarterback rating of 188.6 that would’ve led the ACC had he gotten one more official snap in a game. He accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) in the Tigers win over South Carolina last fall, snapping a string of futility in front of a grateful home crowd last November.
Waston has people paying attention, too. He said earlier this offseason he didn’t plan on losing to the Gamecocks while he was Clemson’s quarterback.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier took notice and answered back this week. “Their quarterback has already challenged our guys and says we can’t beat him ever,” Spurrier said. “So we are looking forward to that challenge.”
Watson said it was not meant disrespectfully, but as a competitor ready to win each time he’s on the field.
Watson spoke to families and members of First Baptist Church of Mauldin, part of a Habitat for Humanity program.
Watson’s family was given a Habitat home in Gainesville, Georgia, as a middle-schooler and told the crowd it made all the difference in the world to him and his family.
“It meant a lot to go to school and come home to a happy place,” Watson said.
Watson hopes to make Death Valley the happiest place in college football this fall. He said he feels no pain in the knee when he cuts or plants and does not engage in the what-ifs of another injury.
One of the crowd asked Watson if the Tigers would go all the way this year. The answer was quick and decisive — “No doubt about it,” he said, “15-0.”