College Sports

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson embraced the ‘student’ in student-athlete

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson piled on extra credit hours each semester to graduate in three years before he moves on to the NFL.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson piled on extra credit hours each semester to graduate in three years before he moves on to the NFL. AP

If you want to get Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson fired up, ask him about credit hours.

So much of Watson’s story seemed predestined. His talent, as a passer and a runner, was such that it was no surprise he’d play on teams competing for a national championship or that he’d be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

But that other side of being a student-athlete – the academics – often seem like an afterthought in major-college football. Watson didn’t want that to be his story. He wanted to finish college appropriately – with a degree – before moving on to the NFL. So he took a workload that would make most college kids spit up their Bud Light.

This month Watson received his degree in communications. It was just as big a deal as playing in Saturday’s national semifinal against Ohio State, he said.

“I took 20 hours this summer,” Watson recalled Wednesday. “In the spring, I took 18. Last fall I took 19.”

The season in which Deshaun led Clemson to a 14-1 record and the national championship game, he took more credit hours than he played football games. When was there even time to sleep?

Now, think about that: The season in which Watson led the Tigers to a 14-1 record and the national championship game, he took more credit hours than he played football games. When was there even time to sleep?

“It was a lot of early mornings and late nights,” Watson said. “I just tried to nap here and there.”

This devotion to a total college experience was about both the micro and the macro. On the big scale, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is a stickler about academics. The Tigers have been top 10 each of the past two years in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate.

On a smaller scale, Watson’s mother pushed him hard to not waste the opportunity to get a degree.

“She didn’t particularly care when I got it done so long as it got done,” Watson said.

Watson and his roommate, wide receiver Artavis Scott, made a pact as freshmen that they would push each other to stay ahead academically. It became the best sort of peer pressure.

“You have to make a lot of sacrifices. You want to go out with your friends, but you have to stay in and study,” Watson said. “It’s something Artavis ... and I decided on – to keep each other on task.”

This fall, by comparison, was a breeze. Watson took just five credit hours, including a course on Political Composition he particularly enjoyed because of material the presidential election provided.

Now it’s on to a matchup with Ohio State. One way or another it was inevitable he’d play in this game; the Buckeyes were his second choice in recruiting.

Watson grew up in Georgia infatuated with Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, who was at Florida from 2005-2010. It was about how Meyer got the best out of quarterback Tim Tebow in what came to be called a "Spread Power" offense.

“I grew up an Urban Meyer fan. I was always a Tim Tebow fan,” Watson said. “He’s a winner. So growing up, that’s who I wanted to play for. I’d tell my mom, ‘I’m going to Florida.’

“But coach Swinney and coach Morris came around, and I fell in love with that university."

That would be Southern Methodist coach Chad Morris, then Clemson’s offensive coordinator. He recruited Watson relentlessly, seeing him as an ideal fit for the offense the Tigers preferred.

Watson’s debut as a freshman in 2014 was in a loss to Georgia. He entered mid-game and quickly threw a post-pattern pass for a touchdown. Afterward, Morris told a circle of reporters he’s so glad he never missed one of Watson’s high school basketball games while recruiting him.

In three seasons, Watson has accounted 9,484 passing yards, 86 touchdowns and one precious diploma.

Now it’s on to the next thing. Someone asked Watson if he imagines himself the top pick in the NFL draft in April.

“I feel like that. Every player should have that mindset,” he replied.

“You don’t want to take a backseat to anyone. You respect the other guys at your position, but you should always come with that confidence that I’m the best guy who can fulfill that job and be that pick.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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