CLEMSON, S.C. — He doesn’t flash that easygoing smile as frequently. His play gets scrutinized and picked apart more, because many of the folks who gushed about Deshaun Watson’s game a season ago now focus on the overthrows and critical interceptions.
Still, Clemson’s junior quarterback is back in the same spot — a Heisman Trophy finalist.
The journey this time has not been as smooth. He apologized in September after two closer-than-expected wins for not bringing the same joy into his game as he had the first two years. He’s led prime-time, fourth-quarter comebacks against No. 16 Louisville and No. 12 Florida State and thrown three interceptions that helped Pitt pull off a stunning upset, a 43-42 victory that was Clemson’s first home loss since Watson was in high school.
Watson believes he is in part tagged with matching the success he had in 2015 when he became the first player in the Football Bowl Subdivision to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000. He capped it with a virtuoso performance against Alabama in the national title game, accounting for four touchdowns and 478 yards in a 45-40 loss.
“It’s easy for people to say that I’m not having the type of season I had last year, because to be honest, a lot of people didn’t really know me until the end of the season,” Watson said. “So they’re just living off the national championship game, and all the success I had in that.”
Once last season ended, Watson was elevated to the face of college football, a favorite for the Heisman who would command a deep, talented Tigers attack that had potential to be the best in the game. When that did not happen immediately, Watson became ripe for criticism, no matter how much success he and his teammates had.
“Personally, I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinions and expectations. I understand what I’m doing, and my teammates do, too,” he said.
Watson has dealt with more difficult things in life. His mother, Deann , was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue while he was at Gainesville (Georgia) High. Deann Watson spent six months in the hospital after her glossectomy, an operation to remove her tongue that takes breast tissue to rebuild the tongue.
Watson’s mother was declared cancer-free in 2012, although she needs to use a feeding tube for the rest of her life.
“It’s something I kind of grew up on, especially coming from the environment I grew up in and the situation with my mom,” Watson said. “It’s a blessing to be able to play the game of football, because one step later it can easily be taken away from me.”
Watson’s numbers this season belie the eye test. He’s thrown for 3,626 yards and 34 TDs, up from 3,223 and 27 touchdowns during the regular season in 2015. His rushing numbers have dropped, but so have Watson’s carries. He was most effective running in the postseason, getting 68 carries and 349 yards in the ACC title game and the team’s two College Football Playoff games last season.
“He’s the best player in college football,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I mean, just that simple. He has done a fantastic job leading this football team.”
BEST GAME: Watson’s best may have come in an early-season, 42-36 showdown win over Louisville and Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson. Watson helped the Tigers to a 28-10 halftime lead, then dug down in the fourth quarter after Jackson had rallied the Cardinals to a 36-28 edge. Watson threw a 20-yard TD pass to Mike Williams to begin the rally with 7:05 to go and directed an 85-yard drive he finished with a 31-yard scoring pass to Jordan Leggett. Watson ended the night with 306 yards and five touchdown passes.
WORST GAME: It seems crazy to label an ACC-record-setting performance as Watson’s worst game, but his 580 yards passing against Pitt were offset by three interceptions — and the last two led to Panthers touchdowns in their 43-42 victory at Death Valley last month. The final pick at the Pitt goal line with Clemson driving for a potential clinching score sprung Pitt linebacker Saleem Brightwell for a 70-yard return that led to a crucial TD. Watson has 15 interceptions in 13 games this season after throwing 15 in 23 games his first two seasons.
PRO PROSPECTS: Watson will be one of the first quarterbacks taken in next spring’s NFL draft, but he might have to rebuild his stock some to show he is a top-of-the-first-round player. Clemson’s last ACC player of the year quarterback, Tajh Boyd, saw his stock go from early-round prospect to a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft.