Entering the 2016 college football season, Clemson Tigers’ quarterback Deshaun Watson was considered by many to be the top draft prospect at the position come April. But with he and the Clemson team starting the season off slowly, the junior quarterback began to fall a bit in draft circles, allowing other players such as DeShone Kizer and Mitch Trubisky to garner more attention. However, the Tigers earned another Atlantic Coast Conference championship, as well as a second-straight playoff berth, and as Clemson had success down the stretch, so did the quarterback. While the Tigers are focused right now on playing Ohio State on New Year’s Eve, it’s never too early to look at some of the traits that stand out watching Watson on film.
Processing speed is an area that shines at times for Watson, in contrast to some of the criticism that lingers around him. Given his experience, the signal-caller is very adept at reading and reacting to the defense and getting the football out to the right receiver in the progression or design.
The first two plays come from the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech. This is a good case study as far as games go for evaluating Watson, because the Hokies used a lot of different blitz packages, including Cover 1 and Cover 0 schemes, which force the QB to accelerate his decision-making process. This first play comes on a 3rd and 4 situation midway through the first quarter with Clemson on the Virginia Tech 39-yard line. The offense lines up with Watson (#4) in the shotgun using 11 personnel, with dual slot formations. Virginia Tech uses a 3-3-5 defensive package, showing blitz off the edges with a linebacker to each side:
The Tigers runs a mirrored flats concept to each side of the field, with all four receivers running quick out patterns at varied depths. The Hokies do blitz, using a zero blitz concept with all three linebackers as well as the free safety coming after the QB:
Watson begins this play as he does nearly every offensive play, by checking the free safety to verify the coverage. Once he does this, he sees the blitz coming:
The safety started to blitz presnap, but this look postsnap confirms the pressure scheme. Seeing this, Watson immediately peels his eyes to the outside to throw the quick out pattern:
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He makes the fast – and correct – decision here, under duress with defenders bearing down on him. It’s a quick and simple play, but it shows both awareness as well as processing speed from the quarterback. Having verified both the blitz – and coverage – Watson knows exactly where to go with the football, and it results in a big third down conversion early in the game.
During last year’s draft process, all of my quarterback scouting profiles contained what I termed the “one play.” Basing an evaluation of a player off of a single snap of football is a flawed way of scouting, but what I tried to encapsulate with that section of the report was what you could expect from the player when he was performing at his best. Basically, what one snap could best summarize their potential when moving to the next level?
This next play, also from the Virginia Tech game, is an early candidate for that portion of Watson’s future draft profile.
Holding a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Tigers face a 3rd and 7 at the Hokies’ 10-yard line. They line up using 11 offensive personnel, again with a slot formation to each side of the field. Virginia Tech stays with their 3-3-5 defensive grouping, and they show a Cover 0 look, with the middle of the field empty:
Here’s the offensive scheme the Tigers employ:
To the left Watson has a quick curl/post combination, with Mike Williams (#7) running the curl from the inside while Jordan Leggett (#16) runs the post from the outside. To the other side of the field, the Tigers use a corner/in combination, with Artavis Scott (#3) running the in cut while Hunter Renfrow (#13) runs the corner route.
Let’s take a moment to look at the offensive playart and the defensive alignment, and try to put ourselves into Watson’s head. With the middle of the field open (“MOFO”), the post route from Leggett is a good option – provided that the middle of the field remains vacant. However, that route will require a quick decision from the QB, as you never want to throw late over the middle. So if you want to stay with that route, you’ll need to make your mind up fast, both in terms of verifying the coverage and pulling the trigger. If the middle of the field closes up due to the coverage rotating, then Watson will need to move to the right side of the field, reading the corner/in cut combination.
Watson takes the snap and as is his standard practice, he first verifies the coverage by checking the safety:
Here, the QB sees the safety to the right side squatting out of the gate. This tells Watson that the defense is running a red zone Cover 2 look, with that safety reading his keys and using a flat-foot technique.
Watson then peels back to the post/curl combination:
He’s confirmed the coverage in his mind, but if Watson still wants to attack the middle of the field with the post, he needs to make sure that the safety to that side doesn’t retreat on the post route, and squats on the curl from Williams. If that safety drops, the post comes off the table and Watson will need to checkdown to the curl route from his slot receiver.
Here’s the QB hitting the final step of the drop:
Watson uses a five-step drop here, and displays excellent footwork on the drop for good measure. I was taught when trying to throw the post route against a Cover 2 look that the ball needs to come out right at the fifth step in the drop. Here’s that step from the QB, and look at the information available to him now. That playside safety is squatting on the curl route from Williams, leaving the post route a viable option. Watson confirms everything he needs to confirm during the course of his five-step drop, and immediately after hitting that fifth step, the ball is out:
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Coverage reads, anticipation throw and perfect ball placement, all in the red zone on a third down in the ACC Championship Game. From snap to release, the ball comes out in 2.46 seconds.
Here’s another look at the play from behind the QB, which provides a good view of the information available to Watson:
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This is a great play from the quarterback, and when I first studied it, I was convinced it would be the “one play” for Watson’s scouting report this season.
Then I watched this snap against Florida State.
Watson’s game against the Seminoles is worthy of a book, and is a great game to study to gain a complete picture of the quarterback. He makes some mistakes in the game – which will be the subject of a later piece – and FSU does get Watson on tilt a bit during the third quarter. But you get to see the QB battle back and learn from his mistakes in real time. When you factor in that this all happens on the road in a hostile environment, on a Saturday night with the season on the line, this is a great, great game to use to evaluate the player.
With under eight minutes to play, the Tigers are in trouble. They trail by two and face a 3rd and 21 on their own 38-yard line. As you might expect, the crowd is raucous, with nearly 70,000 fans screaming and doing the Tomahawk chop to their hearts’ delight. Clemson lines up with Watson in the shotgun using 11 personnel, with trips to the right and a single receiver to the left. The Seminoles use a 4-2-5 nickel package, and they show a two-high safety look presnap:
The Tigers use a four verticals concept, while Florida State drops into a soft Cover 2 look, using a defensive lineman to spy the quarterback in the pocket:
Even with only three defenders rushing, the pocket starts to collapse quickly with pressure coming off the right edge:
This forces Watson to climb the pocket and then slide to his right to evade the pressure. But he does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield, and he spots Renfrow open in space. Despite the fact that he is on the move, he stops on a dime and gets the ball out:
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Seeing it from behind shows just how impressive a play this is, from Watson’s head to his feet:
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As he climbs and starts to exit the pocket to his right, he keeps his eyes downfield and scans for a target. Watson quickly spots Renfrow settling down with some space near the first down marker, so the QB knows he has a chance to make a play downfield and potentially convert this third down. But with his momentum taking him to his right, he needs to quickly convert back to a thrower and get this football out. So the speed of the decision is one thing, but the ability to transition back to a thrower is another extremely impressive aspect of this play. Most quarterbacks would take a hitch step to reset themselves before getting the ball out. But not Watson. He simply drives his right foot into the turf, plants, and throws. All in one quick, fluid movement. I mean, I’m a man. I’m (nearly) 40. But my right ACL snapped just watching that throw. This happens in an instant, and it is the difference between an incompletion and a big gain.
Renfrow makes the catch just shy of the sticks, and the Tigers convert on fourth down. This… this is something special.
Watson definitely has some flaws to his style of play, and will face questions about transitioning to the professional game. But from where I sit, his ability to process information quickly and make smart decisions with the football is a concern that is overblown. Watson is a smart, veteran quarterback who displays the ability to quickly process the external stimuli provided by the defense, make the correct decisions on a given play, and put his offense in a position to succeed. On these three plays we see the processing and play speed necessary to succeed on Sundays, as well as the ability to work through progressions – starting in the presnap phase of the play. Because of his experience in this system, Watson is able to identify and rule out many options presnap, making his job after the snap easier and speeding up his decision-making process as well.