MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Somehow, it seems fitting that Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson counts NFL MVP candidate Cam Newton as a friend and mentor. In leading the Tigers to a 13-0 record and No. 1 ranking this season, Watson has played like a direct descendant of Newton’s with his combination of running and passing skills that accounted for 4,399 yards of total offense and 41 total touchdowns.
When he was in Manhattan for the Heisman Trophy award ceremony, where he finished third behind Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Watson described how he has modeled himself after the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback. “I have a close relationship with Cam, and I love his game and what he’s doing now,” Watson said.
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“When I was a junior in high school, I played for a seven-on-seven high school team [at Newton’s camp]. He got to know me when I was getting recruited. He kept up with me, and I kept up with him since then.”
The question entering Thursday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma (11-1) in the Orange Bowl is whether a fast and physical Sooners defense can keep up with Watson. Defensive end Charles Tapper and outside linebacker Eric Striker figure to play key roles in putting the heat on Watson.
“They like to get him out of the pocket in critical situations, so, we’ve got to do a great job on the quarterback run game,” OU coach Bob Stoops said Wednesday. “He can make some great plays when he pulls the ball down when he’s trying to throw it and runs, as well, so, we’ve got to do a great job of staying in front of him.”
Clemson will be without three players who were suspended for a violation of team rules, including deep threat wide receiver Deon Cain, little used tight end Jay Jay McCullough and kickoff specialist Ammon Lakip. But Tigers coach Dabo Swinney insisted they won’t miss a beat with Trevion Thompson stepping into Cain’s receiving role behind starters Artavis Scott and Charone Peake.
The great thing about having a quarterback like Watson, who has a 69.5 completion percentage, is knowing it doesn’t matter who is running under his deep passes because the ball likely will be on the money. “He’s very accurate and very gifted in making all the throws,” Swinney said, “but he does throw a beautiful deep ball.
“He has the ability to really assess the situation as far as the technique of the defender and how the receiver is executing his release, and he can put the ball, where it needs to be. He’s a special thrower.”
Beyond his physical skills, Watson has proved exceedingly bright in terms of leadership though he’s only a sophomore. “He’s calm and mature,” Peake said. “He’s like that on and off the field. He understands what defenses are trying to do to you. He’s able to get out of a play and change it to make our offense successful against the defense that’s in front of him.”
The temptation is to suggest Watson and Clemson likely will get into a shootout with Oklahoma and prolific quarterback Baker Mayfield, but Watson said he’s not interested in playing the mano-a-mano game.
“Mayfield is a great player,” Watson said. “He got them to this point, but I’m going to do my job. We’re not going to think about who’s going to have the best stats because whoever does that is going to lose focus on the real job.”
As Watson sees it, that’s going about the business of winning a national championship. He brings a preternatural calm to that task despite all the attendant hype. “You know,” Watson said, “it’s really not pressure if you know what you’re doing.”