The College Recruitment of Deshaun Watson

Sanjay Kirpalani@@SanjayKirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystDecember 23, 2016

Current Clemson star QB Deshaun Watson enjoyed one of the most prolific high school careers in Georgia prep history at Gainesville High School from 2010-13.
Current Clemson star QB Deshaun Watson enjoyed one of the most prolific high school careers in Georgia prep history at Gainesville High School from 2010-13.Credit: Scout

As Bruce Miller watched last year's national title game between Alabama and Clemson, his mind raced back to a conversation he had with current Crimson Tide receivers coach Billy Napier roughly six years earlier.

Back then, Napier was on the Tigers' coaching staff and he paid a visit to Gainesville High School in Georgia—where Miller is the head football coach.

The two are longtime friends—having known each other since Napier played at Furman from 1999-2002. Napier was in town to do a little recruiting.

Little did Napier know he would help his friend settle a dilemma that would spark the arrival of current Tigers All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson. 

"[Napier] had his notepad out taking notes about different kids on our team. So I said to him, 'Billy, I just don't know what to do about our quarterback. I don't know who to start right now. [Watson] is a ninth-grader,'" Miller told Bleacher Report. "He stood there for a while and just looked at me and said, 'Well, I think I'd know who I'd start.' I don't know that Billy made my mind up for me, but he had a strong influence."

After finishing third in the Heisman Trophy race as a sophomore and following it up by torching Alabama's vaunted defense for 478 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in a narrow 45-40 loss in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Watson became the face of college football in the offseason and a projected first-round draft pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

For people such as Miller who are familiar with Watson's athletic exploits, they weren't surprised to see him explode into one of the nation's premier passers. After all, he knew his star pupil was a special player when he was in middle school. 

"I could go back to when he was in the seventh grade," Miller said. "I knew I had something special in him. It was the way he handled things as a seventh-grade football player. Then as an eighth-grader, he just completely dominated. Going into his freshman year, we went to camp and some of the things he did against other teams, it was just unbelievable for a freshman."

After Miller placed faith in his gut instinct and the nudge from Napier, Watson would go on to a record-setting career with the Red Elephants as a four-year starter. 

"He never played a JV down," Miller recalled with a chuckle. "He started as a 14-year-old in the ninth grade."

In fact, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, Watson still holds the Georgia prep career records for passing yards (13,077), touchdown passes (159) and all-purpose touchdowns (218).

So how did the Peach State's most prolific high school quarterback escape the state of Georgia and elect to cast his lot with a burgeoning power out of the ACC?

The answer, among a handful of things, has to do with the relationship between Watson and a persistent coach who peeked into his crystal ball and saw a match made in heaven. 

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 27: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers talks with Offensive Coordinator Chad Morris during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Memorial Stadium on September 27, 2014 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smi
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Rusty Mansell of 247Sports has been covering recruiting in the state of Georgia for nearly a decade. 

He saw Watson for the first time at a combine after his freshman year. Mansell recalled hearing the buzz about his talent, and there were some people who thought Watson—who also played basketball and baseball at the time—would have to eventually make a choice between the three sports.

By the time he first saw Watson in a live game, Mansell knew the hype surrounding him as a star passer was justified.

"The first thing you see is how instinctive he is," Mansell said. "That's what you see now. How comfortable he looks playing quarterback. That's so rare to see that. I saw it at an early age in him. Naturally, an athletic guy, but he had such a live arm. The ball just jumps out of his hands when you see him throw. I remember thinking the sky is the limit for this guy. It was too easy. People that weren't in the business were probably leaving that game thinking he was one of the best high school football players they had ever seen." 

Credit: Scout

As word began to leak out about Watson's prowess, college coaches started making the trek to Gainesville—a small town of nearly 35,000 residents about 55 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Miller recalls Napier being the first coach to inquire about Watson. After Napier left Clemson in 2010, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney brought in Chad Morris to serve as his offensive coordinator.

Morris caught wind of Watson and decided to check him out for himself. It's safe to say Watson made a lasting first impression. 

"I saw Deshaun as a freshman," Morris told Bleacher Report's Damon Sayles. "I watched him in the playoffs as a freshman. It only took about two or three clips to know this man was going to be special. We immediately offered him."

Credit: Scout

The offer would be verified months later when he made his way to campus to throw for Swinney.

"They had him up to camp between his freshman and sophomore year, and that is when they offered him at that camp," Miller confirmed. 

Still, the offer was merely a formality at that point since Morris was clearly smitten with Watson's talent and his fit in the Tigers' uptempo, spread attack. 

"Coach Morris kept telling me the whole time. He said, 'Bruce, if we sign Deshaun, we will play for a national championship,'" Miller recalled. "To me, I'm thinking, 'How can he see that?' But he saw that in him. He and Coach Swinney did." 

According to 247Sports, in the fall of 2011, Watson took a number of visits to programs such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. However, he visited Clemson six times in that span, including five during the 2011 season for various games.

On Feb. 1, 2012, Watson—who had just finished his sophomore season months earlier—committed to the Tigers via a post on Facebook, according to MaxPreps.

Kipp Adams @KippLAdams

#Clemson ESPN 150 QB commitment. RT @TomLuginbill: Deshaun Watson is smooth and consistent. https://t.co/erxJ7l8UKQ

Of his commitment, Watson shared the reasoning behind making his choice so early, as ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman detailed.

"They want to build the program around me," Watson told Sherman. "Once I saw that, I took it and ran with it."

As Mansell notes, while it is commonplace in recruiting today for elite prospects, especially at quarterback, to earn early offers, it was still a rarity when Watson was going through the process. 

"I just remember thinking that he just committed early," Mansell said. "Those types of things really didn't happen that much in his time. If it did, the kid would usually decommit."

But as he kept piling up eye-popping numbers for the Red Elephants, the buzz continued to grow. With that, so did his list of offers. 

The pressure in his recruitment intensified when in-state power Georgia finally offered him in January 2013. Watson would take unofficial visits to both Auburn and Georgia that year.

He commented on his trip to the Plains before Clemson's season-opening win over Auburn this year.

"It wasn't a secret. It was something that I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice," Watson told Brandon Rink of GreenvilleOnline.com. "It was my decision. I don't have to tell the world what I'm doing and what I'm allowed to do. … I enjoyed the visit. Auburn was a nice place. Gus [Malzahn] and the whole coaching staff was awesome and I had a great weekend."

But given the lull the Bulldogs program had at quarterback after Aaron Murray departed Athens following the 2013 season, Watson's record-setting college career is a sore spot for Bulldogs fans who wonder what could've been if then-Georgia head coach Mark Richt and his staff had landed Watson.

As Mansell noted, the Bulldogs had landed a touted in-state prospect in 4-star quarterback Brice Ramsey in the 2013 cycle, which could've played a part in why the Bulldogs were slow to recruit Watson. 

Radi Nabulsi @RadiNabulsi

Crazy stuff. RT @KippLAdams: Coach: ESPN 150 QB and #Clemson commitment Deshaun Watson did visit #Auburn http://t.co/jCFKcAndJm

"There is really no way to sugarcoat it. Georgia got in late on [Watson]," Mansell said. "It didn't mean that he wasn't on their board. They really didn't know what they were going to do. They had some guys on campus at the time. But Clemson did a really good job of zeroing in on him."

Miller noted that prominent coaches such as Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State's Urban Meyer all stopped by to try to get Watson to reconsider his pledge. However, Watson never wavered and enrolled at Clemson in January 2014.

Ironically, the first action of his college career came in Athens against Georgia in the 2014 season opener.

Watson threw a 30-yard touchdown on one of his four pass attempts in that game. He's been the face of Clemson's program ever since.

The Tigers lost to the Bulldogs 45-21 that evening. Since then, the Tigers have only lost four games and have clinched a second consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff.  

Before he made history at Clemson, the legend of Deshaun Watson was born during his career at Gainesville High School.

The former do-it-all three-sport athlete has been the face of a Tigers program that has gone 36-5 since he stepped foot on campus, with a shot to compete for the school's second national title.

But before he arrived there, he honored the word he gave to Morris and Swinney, although Morris would depart Clemson to take the head-coaching job at SMU following the 2014 season.

Though Morris has moved on, he's still paying attention in a manner similar to when he discovered his star pupil some six years ago.

"I do think he's a once-in-a-generation type of guy," Morris stated. "I'm pretty biased because of when he first committed to [Clemson] on signing day of his sophomore year. For him to be the man he said he'd be, for him to hold true and solid through two years of recruiting, that said a lot about him. I can talk about him most of the afternoon and not even scratch the surface. I'm extremely excited for him and proud of him."


Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com.