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Deshaun Watson flourishes down the stretch with increased run production

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a Heisman finalist, thanks in large part to his transformation over the second half of the season.

As Eric Mac Lain describes it, Watson went “from a dominant force to unstoppable force, if you will.”

That shift has everything to do with the way co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott decided to use Watson down the stretch -- as a much larger part in the running game. It was an easy decision to make. Before he got hurt a year ago, Watson was the best thing the Tigers had going on the ground. But Watson went into this season off a torn ACL in his left knee, so the coaching staff decided it make the most sense to slowly ease him back into the running equation.

The nation caught a glimpse of what he could do with his legs against Notre Dame in Week 4, when the game plan featured Watson for that very reason. He finished with more rushing yards than passing yards. But it was not until the end of October when the coaches decided it was time to increase his work load.

“We knew what we got in Deshaun the day we signed him,” Elliott said. “Early in the season, he was coming off a knee and obviously we had a conscious effort to say, ‘Let’s make sure the knee is good, get him comfortable, get him used to his offensive line, let Wayne [Gallman] carry the brunt of the load,’ and then once we got past the fourth game of the season and everything started clicking, you had some more cohesion on the offensive line, it was time to let him go impact the game in every aspect of the game.”

That is exactly what he did. In the first seven games of the season, Watson averaged nine carries and 47 yards rushing per game. Only three times did he have double-digit carries. Not once did he have 100 yards rushing.

In his last six games, Watson averaged 16.5 carries and 92.5 yards rushing per game. He had four games with 400-plus yards total offense, compared to one through the first seven. Watson finished with 100 yards rushing in four of his final five games. Watson had 2,514 yards of total offense in the final six games, more than half of his 4,399 yards.

The turning point might have been the Syracuse game, in which the Tigers struggled to put the Orange away. Watson ended up with over 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing for a season-high 473 total yards.

“We had a little bit of adversity and it was after one of the third downs that we tried to run the ball with one of the running backs, we didn’t get it,” Scott recalled. “And Deshaun came to the sideline and told myself and Coach [Dabo] Swinney, ‘The next third-and short, I want the ball in my hands.’ That’s the first time he’s ever come over and said that. That’s told us mentally that he’s ready.”

Watson has carried the ball a combined 45 times over the last two games and has only gotten stronger as the season has gone on. But that is not wholly unexpected, considering he is coming up on the one-year anniversary of his knee surgery. In a picture posted on Twitter afterward, Watson was wearing a Superman knit cap in his hospital bed. The head gear is apropos, considering the Heisman ceremony is one year to the day from that surgery.

In a statement after he was named a Heisman finalist, Watson flashed back to that day and recalled watching a story about Adrian Peterson's remarkable comeback from an ACL tear. “That inspired me to work hard on my rehab,” Watson said.

That hard work allowed him to take the field in September, just nine months after his surgery, without one setback. Three months later ...

“Our coaches have made the comments in the meeting room watching the video he looks faster than he was earlier in the year,” Scott said. “It makes sense. Now we’re getting to that point where he’s just about a full year and that’s what you hear coming back from those ACLs, a full year those guys get back to their speed. He looks quicker and faster at this point in the year than he did earlier, and that’s a good thing.”

It's good because it has changed everything for the Clemson offense. Watson ranks No. 5 in total touchdowns (41) and is one of two players with at least one passing and one rushing touchdown in eight games this season. It happened five times in his final six games.

“It makes it very difficult on defenses to defend us because we’ve got great skill guys, so you’ve got to honor those and give them safety help over the top and then when you try to stop the run, we pick up an extra hat by giving Deshaun the ability to run the ball with a running back leading or with the zone read component,” Elliott said. “He just makes everything right. Maybe it’s not blocked right up front, but with his ability to run he just makes it right.”

Indeed, Watson has made everything right for No. 1 Clemson.