The Saturday after Thanksgiving offered up a slate of rivalry games for the college football connoisseur. Ohio State versus Michigan and Alabama versus Auburn dominated the day. It’s unlikely many people outside of the Palmetto State tuned into the meeting between Clemson and South Carolina that night, and even fewer were probably watching when the Tigers got the football with under a minute left in the first half, already enjoying a 28-point lead. Which is a shame, because you would have missed quarterback Deshaun Watson displaying some of the traits that might make him the first quarterback selected in this year’s draft.
That’s where I step in.
Play 1: Clemson 1st and 10 on the Clemson 20 Yard Line – 0:49 Remaining Second Quarter – Clock Stopped
Following a touchback on a Gamecocks’ punt, the Tigers start their final drive of the first half on their own 20. With just under a minute remaining, and Clemson enjoying a 28-0 lead, you might expect the offense to just run out the clock. But Dabo Swinney and company keep the foot on the gas pedal. At this point in the contest, Watson has completed 13 of 18 passes for 169 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception.
The offense lines up with Watson (#4) in the shotgun in an empty backfield. Using 11 personnel, they align three receivers to the right, with a slot formation to the left. South Carolina uses a 3-3-5 nickel defense, employing a Cover 3 matching scheme in the secondary:
Clemson runs a bit of a “drive-starter” here, throwing a smoke screen to wide receiver Artavis Scott (#3), with wide receiver Hunter Renfrow (#13) and tight end Jordan Leggett (#16) out in front blocking for him. What we see here from the quarterback is a look at his footwork and mechanics. This is not the easiest throw for a right-handed QB as he needs to quickly reset his feet toward the target – immediately turning his body after the snap – while maintaining both accuracy and velocity, and release the ball in one fluid motion::
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In addition, the throw is to the upfield shoulder is perfect, leading Scott ever so slightly toward the line of scrimmage. This allows the WR to gain a bit of momentum behind him, enabling him to cut upfield and pick up 9 yards before he is knocked out of bounds and kick-starting the drive with a solid gain.
Play 2: Clemson 2nd and 1 on the Clemson 29 Yard Line – 0:40 Remaining Second Quarter – Clock Stopped
With Scott getting out of bounds on the previous play, the clock stops, so Clemson adjusts their formation for second down. They stay with an empty backfield, only this time the Tigers put trips to the left, with Scott on the outside, Renfrow in the middle, and running back C.J. Fuller (#27) on the inside. To the right, Leggett aligns in the slot while Mike Williams (#7) splits out wide. South Carolina stays in their 3-3-5, and they show a Cover 3 Buzz look presnap with the strong safety cheating down toward the trips, about 10 yards downfield across from Fuller:
Clemson uses a Dragon Concept on this play:
This is a matching slant / flat concept to each side of the field, with the running back hooking over the middle of the field as an outlet for the quarterback. Watson takes the snap and initially looks to the right, checking the deep slant from Williams and the flat from Leggett. But both routes are covered to start:
Watson then peeks backside, looking at the flat route from Renfrow as well as the shallow curl from his running back. These are both covered:
At this point, Watson starts to buy time with his feet. He has an alley upfield to the right, and as he starts to dart through this hole, the edge defender to that side steps into this crease. Watson sees this and quickly changes direction, ducking back behind his blocker and retreating a bit into the pocket:
That quick little move allows freshman right tackle Sean Pollard (#76) to stay engaged with the defender and shove him a bit upfield, and allows the QB some more time to make a decision. As he rolls to the right Williams and Leggett start to run the scramble drill, and Leggett breaks vertically off of his flat route, along the sideline:
Watson sees his tight end with a bit of an advantage, and trusting his guy – and himself – he looks to make a play:
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Leggett pulls in the throw and then races up the sideline, into Gamecocks’ territory before he’s knocked out of bounds at the South Carolina 41-yard line. This play demonstrates some of the traits Watson is known for, such as his ability to make plays with his feet and off structure / outside the pocket, but it also displays some of the more subtle nuances of his ability to play the position. We see flashes of a full-field read here, even on a half-field scheme like the Dragon Concept. We also see some of his play and processing speed, both in terms of his getting through the progression reads, as well as that subtle change of direction when moving in the pocket. Both the big – and small – things add up to a long gain for the Tigers.
Play 3: Clemson 1st and 10 on the South Carolina 41-Yard Line – 0:30 Remaining Second Quarter – Clock Stopped
With the clock stopped after the previous play, Clemson adjusts their formation once more. Again they align with trips to the left, only this time Scott, Renfrow, and Leggett are the three receivers to that side of the field, with Scott on the outside and the TE aligned inside. On the right side Fuller is in the slot, with Williams near the sideline. The Gamecocks stay with their 3-3-5 personnel, but this time they show a four-man front, dropping a linebacker down over the left tackle. In the secondary they show another single-high look:
On this play the Tigers use another half-field concept, a Flat-7 Smash Concept to the right, with Fuller releasing to the flat and Williams running the corner route. Leggett runs a post from the backside (Scott and Renfrow’s routes are not visible on the tape):
With the football on the right hashmark, Watson is reading this play to the right side of the field all the way. Williams runs a great corner route, selling the cornerback on the post route and gaining separation as he breaks to the outside, and he is wide open. But just before he pulls the trigger, Watson flashes his field of vision to Leggett on the backside post route:
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It’s a very subtle, quick glance, and it’s not clear if it has any impact on the cornerback or the free safety, but it’s important. Williams is wide open, and Watson doesn’t need to manipulate anyone in the secondary here, but the fact that he does this before the throw shows some depth to his game as a passer. Maybe that quick look holds the free safety for a step. Maybe the CB pauses for a split-second. That could be enough for Williams to break a tackle attempt by the corner, and if the FS is a step late, maybe it’s enough for Williams to take this play to the house. Instead, Williams takes in the throw and immediately steps out of bounds, which is the right move given the situation. That quick glance never shows up on the score sheet, at least not on this play. But at some point that little glance might make a difference, whether for Clemson or for Watson’s future employer.
Play 4: Clemson 1st and 10 on the South Carolina 22-Yard Line – 0:24 Remaining Second Quarter – Clock Stopped
Coaches preach it. It’s why teams practice things like the intentional safety, or the two-minute drill, or the kick return after a safety. You never know when these things will pop up, but sometimes knowing exactly what to do in a given situation can be the difference between a win or a loss.
On the fourth play of this drive, the Tigers face a 1st and 10 on the Gamecocks’ 22-yard line. At this point, they are well in field goal range, and with two timeouts (plus the stoppage after any first down) they can safely attack any area of the field.
But when the defense just hands you 6 yards and the sideline due to presnap alignment… you take it in this situation:
Here, the Tigers bring Fuller into the backfield, and with the football on the right hashmark Williams is the single receiver to that side of the field. He will run a quick out pattern. The cornerback to that side, Jamarcus King (#7) gives the receiver about 8 yards of cushion before the snap. In addition, just prior to the play linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams (#4) shows blitz, rotating forward to the right side:
Even with the blitz, the QB has no need to panic because of the presnap cushion. Watson just takes what the defense gives him, snapping off a strong, accurate throw on the out route to Williams:
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The receiver is able to get out of bounds immediately, preserving the two timeouts and getting the Tigers down inside the 20-yard line.
Play 5: Clemson 2nd and 4 on the South Carolina 16-Yard Line – 0:22 Remaining Second Quarter – Clock Stopped
The Tigers stay with the same formation as the previous play, keeping Fuller in the backfield to the right of the QB and putting Williams on the right side by his lonesome. On the left, Leggett is the inside trips receiver, with Renfrow in the middle and then Scott to the outside. Watson looks to throw to that side of the field on this play, as Clemson runs a Double-In Concept. Renfrow and Scott run matching 5-yard in routes, while Leggett runs a corner route behind them. Again, the Gamecocks bring pressure, sending six after the QB and dropping into a Cover 1 look. Watson does just about everything right on this play. His footwork is solid on the drop, and as the pressure comes off the edges he climbs the pocket a bit – even with a free rusher up the middle – to create enough space to release the pass to Leggett, who is open:
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He just misses this pass. Watson is usually pretty accurate down the field, so we can chalk this one up as a mistake and move on.
Play 6: Clemson 3rd and 4 on the South Carolina 16-Yard Line – 0:16 Remaining Second Quarter – Clock Stopped
Thankfully for Watson, Williams is there to pick his QB up:
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It’s a screen pass, but it’s another strong, accurate throw from Watson, and it comes under some duress, with an unblocked edge rusher coming from is blind side with a free run at the QB. But Watson gets the ball out on time and on target, and Williams does the rest for the score.
On this quick drive we got to see some of what Watson is known for doing well, in addition to him addressing some of the question marks that surround his draft stock, such as making full-field reads, working through progressions, and manipulating defenders in the secondary. Some might point out that this came against South Carolina, a team having a down year, with the score already 28-0. But when working through the evaluation of a player it’s important to observe him in various situations, whether at home or on the road, against top competition, or even against a lesser opponent. You want to see the player comport well in a game he is expected to do well in, to not only have success but to do the little things that might not matter that night, but that will matter in the future. This drive showed that from Watson, from the quick moves in the pocket to the progression reads to the subtle looks downfield to manipulate defenders when it wasn’t necessary. These are all things he will need to do on Sundays, and the mere fact he was doing them on a sleepy Saturday night against an overmatched opponent speaks volumes about the player Watson is – and can be.