Deshaun Watson’s national championship game performance was the kind of night that childhood dreams are made of — the rising junior threw four touchdowns and had 478 yards of total offense — except for the final minutes.
It’s possible that casual fans hadn’t watched Watson lead a quietly elite Tigers program through an undefeated regular season. In marquee regular-season wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, the Tigers offense wasn’t quite as explosive; but after the national championship game, Watson was a household name. That’s what slicing up an Alabama defense does.
Now the Clemson quarterback enters 2016 as a Heisman favorite on the NFL’s radar, leading a team that was so painfully close to beating back the Alabama dynasty. The first task for one of college football’s brightest talents: Take all the good of 2015, break it down, learn from it and then leave it in the past.
This article and more can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016 ACC Football Preview magazine, available now on newsstands and in our online store.
Did you feel like there was any kind of hangover after the title game? What’s it been like to get back to work?
I’m doing really well. School is going good and the off-field training has been, too. It feels good to get back and make it about the work on the field. We had some time off right after [the national title game] to refresh and reflect on the journey, and since then it’s been focusing on what we can accomplish in 2016.
Have you watched the title game, and if so, how many times?
I’ve watched it maybe about six or seven times. I’ve watched it to correct myself, to look at my mistakes, and honestly I’ve just watched it to watch it. That game is behind us now, but it was still a great experience. There are thousands and thousands of athletes who want to play in that game, so why not watch it? Sit back and enjoy it, even though it didn’t turn out the way we wanted.
What are you looking for when you watch one of your games repeatedly? What are you picking up on?
It depends. Every time you find something different. There’s usually something you didn’t see the last time — decision-making, technique, how I read a defense and seeing what I didn’t get to see on the field. Probably the biggest things are looking at my decision-making and my footwork. I’m looking for things I can improve.
At this point in your career, who do you think is the best defensive player you’ve faced?
That’s hard. I would probably say [former Florida State defensive back] Jalen Ramsey if you’re talking about the opposing team. If you’re including our team I’d probably say Shaq Lawson, Stephone Anthony or Mackensie Alexander.
Clemson has had a ton of defensive talent head to the NFL. Your scrimmages must be pretty intense.
Absolutely. We’ve had Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett. Clemson has been very talented on the defensive side, which helps me as a quarterback.
What’s your favorite stadium to play at when you’re on the road? Have you had one favorite experience as the visiting team?
Florida State is a really great environment to play in, especially when it’s Clemson and Florida State against each other. The place I would want to go to and play at that I haven’t … LSU, Oregon, maybe the Rose Bowl or at USC. I could go on and on, but those are the big ones.
Do you think you could be a two-sport athlete at Clemson if you had to?
I think so. I could play basketball. I had an opportunity to play here at Clemson and had some other offers when I was being recruited, but I really wanted to focus on football. I played shooting guard in high school.
Who is your favorite pro athlete right now, and growing up?
It’s always been LeBron James. Even when I was growing up through today. It’s the way he prepares for games and the way he performs, but also the way he takes criticism. It’s everything about how he handles himself. He’s someone I loved to watch and will watch whenever I can.
When you aren’t playing the game, do you consider yourself a college football fan?
I love college football, going back to when I was a little kid. I just love the different teams around the country, watching how they play and prepare, and not so much to compare them to us but just to see how the game is different in different environments.
Are there non-Clemson players you tune in to watch?
I used to love to watch [Trevone] Boykin at TCU. But right now I’d say Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey. Those are the guys at the top of my list right now.
What was it like to be recruited by (former offensive coordinator) Chad Morris and watch him leave for a head coaching job (at SMU)? What’s your advice to kids being recruited?
In high school I never had a big change. Honestly, it’s probably the biggest change of my career. I didn’t have one going all the way back to middle school and pee wee. When you’re being recruited you really need to trust your heart. Focus on what you’re looking for in a school. It’s a business. For you it’s life changing — it’s where you’ll be for three or four or five years. You have to have a balance between the place and the coaches. You love football, but you’ll only be playing there six or seven days a year. You have to be comfortable there all those other hundreds of days.
When did you know Clemson would be special last season?
Probably all the way back in the summer, when we’d get together off the field and compete. Running drills, player-led meetings, activities, all that. Then heading into fall camp we were already working hard. We knew.