By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications
Following the final impassioned postgame locker room speech of the 2015 season from head coach Dabo Swinney, quarterback Deshaun Watson and offensive guard Eric Mac Lain headed off to a formal press conference alongside their head coach.
Both players waited their turns as Swinney addressed the disappointment of the loss that had just unfolded against Alabama in Glendale, Ariz., in the national championship game.
Swinney marveled at what his sophomore signal-caller was able to accomplish, nearly leading the Tigers to the school’s second championship with a record-breaking 478 yards of total offense.
He gushed over Watson’s toughness, his mind for the game and his heart.
Watson, as he did all season despite nearly every major accolade thrown his way, focused only on the bottom line.
“All of the stats don’t really matter to me,” Watson told the national media inside the bowels of University of Phoenix Stadium. “At the end of the day, I wanted the ‘W.’ I wanted to get the win and do something that we haven’t done in 34 years.
“At the end of the day, I love my teammates, love my brothers…”
But it was the next remark that drew a lot of attention, one that Watson said without batting an eye.
“You’ll see us in Tampa next year.”
Watson was alluding to the fact that next year’s College Football Playoff National Championship is held in Tampa, Fla., at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Buccaneers.
A bold statement, indeed, but based on his body of work from a brilliant sophomore campaign and Clemson’s returning talent on the offensive side of the ball, who could blame him for the confidence displayed in that moment? After all, the loss to the Crimson Tide was Clemson’s first in two seasons in a game that Watson started and finished.
The product of Gainesville, Ga., brought pride to the Clemson family across the nation as he stockpiled gaudy statistics and, most importantly, wins in leading the program to one of its most memorable seasons.
Watson was asked shortly thereafter to identify the areas of his game he needed to improve as a junior when Mac Lain quickly interrupted the media member who asked the question.
“Nowhere,” he said, emphatically.
Knowing Mac Lain, he was not joking. Watson had just completed a stirring performance, one of the best by a quarterback in recent championship game history, which elevated him to rarified air. He became the first player in FBS history with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
But those were merely some of the numbers that defined Watson’s brilliance over the course of four-and-a-half months that saw Clemson take the nation by storm.
It was difficult to turn on a television or take a peek at various social media platforms without seeing the Tigers dancing in the locker room, or making countless big plays as the wins continued to mount.
At the forefront of it all was Watson, whose humility as a person far exceeds his extraordinary abilities on the field. His story was well documented by ESPN’s David Hale and Marty Smith this fall.
He grew up underprivileged, living in a government-run apartment with his mother, DeAnn, and three siblings. His life forever changed when he moved into a Habitat for Humanity home, and he has never forgotten his roots. When the team went to nearby Anderson in the fall to help build a Habitat home, Watson was equipped with a hammer and nails, assisting wherever he was needed.
It was a fitting story for someone of Watson’s stature. He helped build upon Clemson’s foundation as a football program and took it to new heights, compiling a 14-1 record as the face of the ACC and Orange Bowl championship Tigers.
Watson was Clemson’s first Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing third in the balloting with 148 first-place votes. He won the Davey O’Brien and Manning Awards, given annually to the nation’s top quarterback. He was a consensus All-American, earning first-team honors from six different organizations.
The ACC honors poured in following a brilliant regular season…First-Team All-ACC by the media and coaches, ACC Player-of-the-Year, ACC Offensive Player-of-the-Year. He followed with a record-setting performance in the ACC Championship Game, earning MVP honors. He duplicated the feat at the Orange Bowl, winning Offensive MVP.
And then there were the ‘wow’ plays. The cut to the outside on the first series against Notre Dame on a wet field. The third-and-long dart to Trevion Thompson at South Carolina. The jump throw touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett in the ACC Championship Game. The perfectly thrown touchdown passes to Hunter Renfrow against the Crimson Tide. All moments that took your breath away.
Despite all of the notoriety and accolades he earned, Watson was adamant in the postgame press conference that he had plenty to work on as a player.
“It starts with the film, fixing some of the mistakes I made,” he admitted. “I need to put on some weight, get in the weight room more and take the next step in my game.”
That is a scary thought to the teams that comprise Clemson’s 2016 schedule.