It was the third quarter, 18 minutes left in the national championship game, and there was no way a scrambling Deshaun Watson was going to slide. So as Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster closed in, Watson braced himself for this vicious blow:
DESHAUN. 😳 pic.twitter.com/jg7kDwj2NU— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 10, 2017
This shot would put some quarterbacks down for the night. Foster can hit. He's a top-tier NFL talent. But Watson just bounced up and continued to run the Clemson offense. And I thought he played his best football after that, leading the Tigers back against the nation's top defense, a group loaded with draft picks. Watson wore that unit down with tempo and eventually led his team on a game-winning drive to grab a championship ring.
When Watson walks into the Houston Texans locker room for the first time, he will get some respect from the veterans, the old cats who have been playing in this league for a while. And it's not about the former Clemson star's scouting report or college stats.
You see, these vets recognize when a quarterback takes a pounding and gets up off the turf. That's leadership, that's toughness and it sells in the locker room at every level.
Over and over again, Watson showed those traits at Clemson. Remember, he was considered one of the top NFL prospects headed into the 2016 season. But in that Clemson system, he consistently took hits, carried the ball on designed runs and sacrificed his body. And, honestly, I'm kind of surprised that he survived, given the punishment he endured.
You want toughness? This kid has it. Over the past two years at Clemson, Watson carried the ball 260 times on designed runs, more than any quarterback in the country. That averages out to 8.7 carries a game -- a big number for a quarterback with an NFL future, and it leads to a lot of hits.
Along with the zone-read schemes that allowed Watson to get to the edge of the defense, Clemson also leaned on the QB to run the ball inside of the tackles. This is the same stuff we see with Cam Newton in the pros. The difference? At 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, Watson doesn't have Newton's freakish frame (6-5, 248 pounds). Those extra 27 pounds would come in handy on plays like this one:
This is the spread version of the "Counter OF" play with the guard pulling to kick out and the back leading up through the hole. That allows both linebackers to read the scheme, fill the hole and deliver a shot. By the end of this play, Watson gets swallowed up by the entire NC State front seven. Ouch.
Watson's running responsibilities should change at the NFL level. If the Texans are smart, they won't risk Watson's long-term health by asking him to carry the ball like he did in college. Instead, think more of the QB run schemes we see with Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota and Alex Smith. Edge runs, zone-read concepts that put stress on the defense. Get some yards and then get down. And, really, it only takes around 25-30 designed runs per season to create major issues for opposing defensive game plans.
Watson will bring that ability to the pros. He's built for the modern game because of how he anticipates throwing windows, puts a soft touch on the ball and uses his athleticism to shred defenses. He's a legit dual-threat weapon.
But while we wait for Watson to work through the development steps and the roller coaster ride every young quarterback endures, I expect those veterans in the Texans' locker room to gravitate toward Watson's leadership and toughness.
I know I would.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.