COLUMBIA, S.C. — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson believes he won't miss a beat despite sitting out all spring after knee ligament surgery. And the Tigers most dynamic player insists he'll return at full speed once he's cleared to cut loose this summer.
The slender signal-caller said he's on track for a full recovery heading into his sophomore year after an offseason of injuries and frustrations. Watson suffered injuries to his collarbone, a finger on his throwing hand and the ACL in his left knee during a late November practice.
Despite the knee injury, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Watson helped the Tigers end their five-game losing streak against South Carolina with a 35-17 victory. Watson had surgery two weeks later.
While he wasn't on the field this spring, Watson said he and coach Dabo Swinney agreed he'd stay involved on the sidelines in mentally unspooling and cataloging each snap the offense took.
"I'm there mentally to take every rep that every other quarterback takes to make sure that I'm staying prepared," he said.
Watson might have to prepare for a very hype-filled second season.
The Atlantic Coast Conference enters the season without several of its most-talked-about players from the past few seasons like Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley and Louisville receiver DeVante Parker.
Watson's poise and productivity have him prepped to fill up that void — as long as he stays healthy.
He passed for 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in eight games, just five of them starts.
Swinney said Watson has grown in football smarts and confidence, maturing from a promising freshman to a polished performer who nearly pulled off an upset over the Florida State Seminoles in Tallahassee last fall.
"Just expecting to have him take it to another level," Swinney said.
Watson played at a high level last season — when he was available.
He missed five games last season after taking over as Clemson's starter.
Watson entered the season behind senior Cole Stoudt, but got the starting job for good after putting the Tigers in position to defeat Florida State in a 23-17 overtime loss last September.
He passed for 702 yards and eight touchdowns the next two weeks in wins over North Carolina and North Carolina State.
Watson-excitement took a hit the next game when he injured his finger against Louisville and had to miss the next three games. He returned to face Georgia Tech in mid-November, yet played about a quarter before leaving with sprained ligament and a bone bruise.
Swinney said it became a full-fledged tear during a Clemson practice a few days later. Still, Clemson kept the injury quiet and Watson wore a brace on his left leg while throwing for 269 yards and accounting for four touchdowns — two running, two passing — in the win over the rival Gamecocks.
Swinney, who has described his quarterback as a "genetic freak," said Watson's been ahead of his rehabilitation schedule at nearly every milestone.
Watson's health is critical for a Clemson offense with young offensive standouts — including tailback Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott, both freshmen — but no experienced depth at quarterback depth if Watson is sidelined.
Clemson's offensive philosophy won't change to suit its new coordinators or to safeguard Watson any more than it already does.
"Most people will watch us and they won't see anything different from how we play," he said.
Watson has no concerns about his durability and doesn't believe fans should either. He said, once cleared to fully practice, he won't waste time worrying about further injuries and instead will concentrate on winning.
The quarterback, said: "We want to take that next step."