CLEMSON, S.C. — Two years and four days ago, DeShaun Watson gave Clemson’s Class of 2014 a gigantic boost by becoming the Tigers’ first 2014 verbal commitment.
Wednesday, hours after Watson and his classmates officially became the newest Tigers by signing their national letters of intent, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney returned the favor.
When asked during his national signing day press conference if Watson could legitimately win the Tigers’ starting quarterback position this fall, Swinney responded rather affirmatively.
“If (Watson) wins the job, that’s up to him,” Swinney said. “If he can win the job, he’ll be the starter.”
Watson has the talent. According to Swinney, he has the opportunity. Together, that’s reason enough to believe that he can be the starting quarterback when Clemson faces off with Georgia in the 2014 season opener Aug. 30.
When Watson enrolled at Clemson last month, he did so as perhaps the Tigers most highly-touted quarterback recruit ever. Watson is rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect and the No. 42 overall prospect.
He was a four-year starter at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, throwing for more than 13,000 yards, gaining more than 4,000 on the ground and accounting for 218 total touchdowns.
This spring, he’ll compete with rising senior Cole Stoudt and rising sophomore Chad Kelly to replace graduated senior Tajh Boyd, who left as Clemson’s most decorated quarterback, the holder of 58 Clemson and ACC single-game, season and career records.
Boyd is the ACC’s all-time touchdown pass leader, second in passing yardage behind N.C. State’s Philip Rivers and holds Clemson career records in passing yards, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns (rushing and passing combined).
He leaves huge shoes behind and each candidate brings his own unique attributes.
Stoudt has spent the last three seasons in Chad Morris’ offense, learning its nuances, its ins and outs. He was a capable backup for Boyd, completing 79.7 percent of his passes in backup duty in 2013.
Kelly was a 4-star recruit when he signed with Clemson two years ago, and he blends the ability to run and pass successfully. He recovered from suffering a torn ACL in the Tigers’ spring game to perform well as the third-team quarterback last fall, including an impressive 38-yard touchdown run against Virginia.
Watson enters with a skill set similar to Boyd’s, capable of running or passing at a high level.
Gainesville runs a spread offense very similar to Clemson’s, and Watson was given freedom to call and change all of his plays at the line for the last two seasons, a rare responsibility for a high school quarterback.
Arriving in January gives Watson a chance to absorb the offense early and a serious chance at competing.
“It’s huge,” Swinney said. “It gives him a realistic chance. Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly are unique players. I believe they’re both next-level players. But regardless of what happens with the quarterback situation, for (Watson) to be able to come in and go through spring ball, it gives him a much better opportunity as an elite talent.
“He’s an elite person with great work ethic who’s very smart. His football IQ is big.”
That said, nothing is guaranteed. Watson will have to overtake a pair of competitors who have multiple seasons in Morris’ offense in a matter of months and do so in a way that earns Morris' and Swinney's trust. It won’t be easy.
“If Cole wins the job, he’ll be the starter,” Swinney said. “If Chad wins the job, he’ll be the starter. Is (Watson) good enough? Absolutely. It’ll be a very competitive situation.”
Swinney and Morris are not afraid of playing the best player, regardless of age.
If Watson lives up to his talent and billing, he’ll be the man under center Aug. 30 in Athens.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article were obtained directly by the author. Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.