CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Deshaun Watson took the shotgun snap, backpedaled a few steps and launched a perfect pass to receiver Mike Williams. Moments later, Watson faked the handoff and burst through the line.
All in all, it’s been a strong start for Watson and his surgically repaired left knee.
“I was just happy to be back out there with my teammates and get things going,” the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year said.
Watson tore his ACL late last season and missed the Tigers’ 40-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Since then, the Watson watch has been on for Clemson fans and opponents.
With Watson, Clemson was voted the preseason favorite to win the ACC championship. Without the sophomore, the Tigers have almost no game experience with backups Nick Schuessler and true freshman Kelly Bryant.
Another quarterback, freshman Tucker Israel, broke a bone in his foot in workouts Tuesday and was in a walking boot. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney expected Israel to miss about four weeks.
Watson said his knee feels strong and he is ready to do anything and everything to lead the Tigers to success.
The knee “has just gotten better and I’ve been doing everything I’ve needed to do since we started in May,” Watson said.
Watson was a five-star freshman out of Gainesville, Georgia, who set that state’s total yardage mark (17,134 yards) and total touchdown record (218). He quickly moved up the depth chart in camp and threw a touchdown pass on his first series in the Tigers’ opener last year at Georgia.
Watson took over the starting job in week three, nearly pulling off the upset at Florida State before falling 23-17 in overtime.
Watson’s ascent looked unstoppable the next few weeks — he accounted for 792 yards and 10 touchdowns in blowout wins over North Carolina and North Carolina State — until he injured a finger on his throwing hand early in a victory over Louisville.
Watson missed the next three starts and was back for Clemson’s showdown at Georgia Tech in mid-November. But Watson hurt his knee in the opening half and sat out the next week, too.
Watson played with a brace on his left knee in the season finale against rival South Carolina, powering the Tigers to a 35-17 win. Swinney later acknowledged Watson played with a torn ligament and he had surgery a short time later.
Swinney has continually referred to Watson as a “genetic freak” for his ability to heal quickly and stay ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation.
Watson was smooth and confident in his first two days in camp, showing no hesitation because of the injury.
“Ditto,” Swinney said Wednesday when asked for his assessment of Watson. “Well said.”
Watson never let the injury get him down or derail him from improving. While missing spring practice, Watson was on the sideline going through his checks and breaking down the plays. He’s happiest now, on the field and making plays.
“He’s looked great, just like last year,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “Very sharp and efficient. The whole offense operates completely different when he’s in there.”
A healthy Watson could mean big things for Clemson, which won nine of its final 10 games a year ago after starting 1-2.
Watson said he won’t play scared or worry about re-injuring himself. That, he said, would lead to problems for the Tigers.
“They will probably say ‘Stay down,’ but if the opportunity is there I’m going to jump first,” he said. “I am out there doing what I love and I am just going to do what I have to do. I am just back in the saddle.”