CLEMSON, S.C. — In the year of the running back, Gainesville High graduate and Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson is making a late push to keep the Heisman Trophy in a quarterback’s hands.
The best player on the nation’s No. 1 team is just now starting to emerge as a serious Heisman contender.
The sophomore is chasing star running backs such as Alabama’s Derrick Henry, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, but he seems to be gaining ground.
Around this Death Valley, though, there is no doubt about Watson’s place in the Heisman race and whether he should be in New York on Dec. 12 when the winner is revealed.
“I definitely plan on him being there and I hope he takes me with him,” Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said Monday.
Quarterbacks have won the last five Heisman trophies and 13 of the last 15. Watson checks a lot of the same boxes as recent winners.
Nine of those quarterbacks played in the BCS championship game or in the case of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota last year, the College Football Playoff.
Watson, who guided Gainesville to the 2012 Class AAAAA title, and the Tigers (10-0, 7-0) are three wins from going to the playoff. The easiest of those games comes Saturday at home against Wake Forest (3-7, 1-5).
Dual-threat, spread-offense quarterbacks have also gotten a lot of love from Heisman voters in recent years. Think Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow and Mariota.
Watson can also do it all, too, and his numbers are very good. He is averaging 319 total yards per game, 15th in the nation. His passer rating of 160.3 is 14th best. He has accounted for 28 touchdowns.
He has some work to do, however, to catch up to the gaudy stats put up by those recent Heisman winners.
Manziel averaged 393 total yards per game. Griffin averaged 383. Tebow accounted for 55 touchdowns and became the first major college quarterback to have at least 20 rushing touchdowns and throw at least 20 touchdown passes.
Mariota’s passer rating was 181.75.
At least part of the reason Watson’s numbers don’t jump off the screen is the way Clemson has used its superstar, who was coming off a major knee injury.
Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said the plan was to be judicious with Watson as a runner and save his wheels for the big games.
“Early in the year we weren’t as aggressive in running him and just knew that he’d get a certain number of carries on his own, just in scrambles,” Scott said. “He wants to run the ball.”
Watson had 64 carries, including 16 against Notre Dame, in Clemson’s first seven games. He has 44 carries in the last three games and he has gone over 100 yards rushing in each of the last two.
“They wanted me to get in the feel of the game, and the first few games, I would only play a half, so there was no need for me to run the ball,” Watson said.
On Saturday at Syracuse, as Clemson was having a hard time putting away the Orange, Watson went to Scott and asked to carry the ball on a couple of key third-down plays.
“That right there from your quarterback, especially a talented guy like him, that says a lot,” Scott said.
As far as Scott is concerned, Watson greatest value to the Tigers doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
“In my opinion of all the attributes that he has, strengths that he has, I think his decision-making at the line of scrimmage and when the ball is snapped, is as good as I’ve ever seen and ever been around,” Scott said. “He gets us out of bad looks and gets us into good situations.”
Don’t expect Watson to start touting himself for the Heisman. He’ll let his teammates do that and just see where things go over the next three weeks.
“It’d be an honor,” Watson said. “Another step to where I want to be. Another goal I want to achieve. If it happens, then me and my family and coaches and teammates are going to enjoy it and celebrate it.”