Deshaun Watson’s improvement puts him in Heisman race

Clemson is in the national title mix thanks to sophomore QB Deshaun Watson. Here's why he's got a strong Heisman case.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Deshaun Watson’s improvement puts him in Heisman race

In a season where we’ve seen the top teams move about, and the College Football Playoff rankings change every week, the constant has been Clemson. One of the last undefeated teams in the nation, with big wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, they are wins over South Carolina and North Carolina, with the latter in the ACC Championship Game, away from being confirmed as the No. 1 seed in the playoff.

It’s been a team effort, and the Tigers are buoyed by defensive standouts like defensive end Shaq Lawson (+25.6) and safety Jayron Kearse (+17.6), both of whom rank near the top of their position groups, but the big story in the second half of this season has been the progression of quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson was a player who a lot of people were expecting big things from in his true sophomore season, especially after the flashes we saw in his freshman year. He missed time through injury, and wasn’t perfect by any means, but big performances against Florida State and North Carolina gave a glimpse at someone who could be a top quarterback. With an arm good enough to create big plays deep, he went 13-for-31 for 446 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception on throws 20 yards or more downfield.

As the 2015 season began, he looked solid, but as much as he wasn’t playing poorly, there wasn’t that step up that you would have liked to have seen in his second season. In the early-season Thursday night win over Louisville he graded negatively as a passer, something that happened three times in the first six games of the season. Despite completing 70 percent of his passes, it wasn’t a good night for Watson, who completed just two passes (both for touchdowns) of throws travelling 10 or more yards downfield. When the Louisville defense was able to get pressure that night, Watson completed just 28.6 percent of his passes. His struggles were compiled by two interceptions against the Louisville defense.


Watson’s season turned during the shootout against North Carolina State on Oct. 31. The Wolfpack’s defense has struggled in 2015, and the Clemson signal-caller took advantage of this, beating them for five touchdowns with no interceptions, completing 76.7 percent of his passes on his way to a 383-yard passing day. Even more impressive about that completion percentage was the fact that there was a batted pass and a dropped pass in there, with Watson actually accurate on 82.8 percent of his throws in the game. It wasn’t the type of game to give him a big stage for a Heisman moment, but there haven’t been many better performances from quarterbacks so far this year. Four of his five touchdowns came on passes travelling more than 20 yards in the air, including the one below that hit freshman wide receiver Deon Cain perfectly in stride.


He followed that up with another big performance, this time in Clemson’s biggest game of the year against Florida State. The numbers weren’t as impressive as against NC State, but he still completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 297 yards with a touchdown, adding another 107 yards on the ground. He made plenty of big throws in that game, and his rushing ability added to that to give Clemson the edge, putting them in the driver’s seat for a place in the ACC Championship game.

Since the lopsided win over Miami, Watson has graded positively as a passer in every game, with his rushing boosting his grade and the Clemson offense when it’s been needed. He’s a gifted athlete who can make a defense pay with his legs, but it’s been the maturation of him as a passer which has seen him really start to impress and become the type of quarterback many believed he could be after last season. Comparing his performances as a passer from the first eight weeks of the season to the past four really is night and day.

Weeks 1-8 Weeks 9-12
Passing Grade +1.5 +15.9
Rank T-64th 4th
Accuracy  % 77.2 % 79.5%
Rank 18th 6th
Deep Passing Yards 455 451
Rank 37th 8th

Perhaps it was harsh to expect so much early in the season, particularly as he had missed some time as a freshman, leading to him playing just 333 snaps heading into this season. Now, with a bit more experience under his belt, we’ve seen Watson transform from a player who was a solid young quarterback with a lot of potential, into one of the best quarterbacks in the country. His big arm is powering the Clemson offense towards a potential national championship this season, and with the Heisman race still wide open there’s every chance that there’s an individual award in Watson’s future too. Either way, with Watson continuing to grow, the sky is the limit for both him and the program, both this year and beyond.

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

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