HOUSTON -- It was late on a Saturday night in January, just a few weeks after Deshaun Watson enrolled at Clemson. Tigers offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who was meeting a recruit on campus by Clemson's Memorial Stadium, saw two people running on the field under the emergency lights.
Scott quickly realized that it was Watson and his freshman roommate, wide receiver Artavis Scott, now a Chargers rookie. They were using the flashlight on a phone to see the plays they were running.
"They had only been on campus for about two weeks, and I knew right then, I was like, 'Wow, here it is. It's a Saturday night, the lights are off in the stadium, it's 35 degrees, and these guys are out here running through plays,'" Jeff Scott said.
That night in Clemson was an early sign of Watson’s great work ethic and desire to transition quickly to the next level, qualities that set him on a path to dominate in college and become the 12th overall pick by the Houston Texans.
Watson came to Houston noticeably prepared for rookie minicamp, and he impressed on the first day of team meetings.
"The one thing that stood out to me is, really, his work ethic and how dedicated he is to doing it," Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. "Today is a day off for him officially, but I just went down to the quarterback room. He's in there, he's studying, and I just think that's how he's approached it since he walked in here. His approach to it, how serious he is about it and his professional demeanor for a young guy has been impressive for me."
As impressive as Watson was during offseason workouts, he is still a rookie who enters training camp as unproven Tom Savage’s understudy. The Texans, who have won the AFC South the past two seasons and return the NFL's top-ranked defense, have playoff expectations, even though their biggest question is at the most important position in the game.
Is Watson capable of stepping in and leading a team primed for a playoff run? Watson's time at Clemson showed that he is capable of picking up a complex offense and rising up the depth chart quickly.
"[He's] uncommon. It's unbelievable," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "I don't really know how to articulate what I know about him. And [comparing him to Michael Jordan] is the only way I know how to do it. All those great ones, the Michael Jordans, the Steph Currys, the LeBron Jameses, the Joe Montanas, the Tom Bradys ... there's a uniqueness to them. There's something to them. Yes, you can see talent. But there's this other stuff that you cannot see until you really get around it every day. And that's what he's got. And how to articulate that, I don't really know, other than this is going to be a great 30 for 30 one of these days."
The rookie QB challenge
To open the season as the Texans' starting quarterback, Watson will have to beat Savage, who has been with the Texans for three years; the organization drafted him in the fourth round in 2014. But Savage has played in only two of those three seasons because he missed 2015 with a shoulder injury suffered in a preseason game.
General manager Rick Smith and coach Bill O'Brien said on draft night that Savage would be their starter.
Since the Texans traded Brock Osweiler in March, O'Brien has emphasized how difficult it is for a rookie quarterback to start in the NFL. He and Smith echoed those comments after they drafted Watson, despite the fact that the Texans paid a heavy price (their 2017 first-round pick at No. 25 and a 2018 first-round pick) to trade up to the No. 12 pick to get him.
"There's this other stuff that you cannot see until you really get around it every day. And that's what he's got. And how to articulate that, I don't really know, other than this is going to be a great 30 for 30 one of these days." Dabo Swinney on Deshaun Watson
Last season, the Texans' offense ranked 29th in passing yards per game and 31st in touchdowns with Osweiler and Savage under center. Despite the lackluster QB play, Houston won the AFC South with a 9-7 record, beat the Raiders in a wild-card playoff game and stuck with the Patriots for one half on the road in Foxborough during the divisional round. Much of that can be credited to the NFL's No. 1 defense that now returns J.J. Watt, who missed most of the previous season with a back injury.
To take the next step -- reaching the AFC Championship Game for the first time in team history -- Houston needs much-improved play from its quarterback.
The Texans have two options in that department: an unproven starter who showed flashes in his brief stint in relief of Osweiler last season but who has not thrown an NFL touchdown and a rookie who dominated in college but has work to do in his transition to the NFL.
Rookie quarterbacks have had varying success in the NFL in recent years, although the Dallas Cowboys hit the jackpot last season in fourth-round pick Dak Prescott, who led them to a 13-3 record after winning the starting job when injuries felled Tony Romo and Kellen Moore. In 2016, Prescott and Raiders fourth-round pick Connor Cook started playoff games, each losing his lone start. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 16 rookie quarterbacks have started a playoff game in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). None has ever reached the Super Bowl.
Since 2006, when QBR was first tracked, rookie quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round have a combined record of 131-176, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Of the 29 quarterbacks taken in the first round since then, five have started a playoff game -- but none since Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012.
Texans backup quarterback Brandon Weeden said Watson is showing that he is capable of quickly making the jump to the NFL.
"He's a very smart guy," Weeden said. "He retains information very well, so he's kind of ahead of the curve. He's doing a lot of great things. This is a challenging system for a quarterback, but I think he's taking all the right steps and putting in the work to get better."
Although Watson is a rookie, players have gravitated toward him in the locker room, and he is already earning the respect of his new teammates.
"When you watched him, or at least when we watched him in the building here around our players, it was pretty apparent that that leadership trait that he has, it's infectious," Smith said.
Added offensive assistant Pat O'Hara: "I think he has that [leadership] about him without saying a word. He has a nature about him that I think people go to him. I think he has a real strong personality that's maybe not real, real vocal, but that's OK. But he has a presence about him that's real positive. A really poised man. But no, he doesn't need to be out there screaming and yelling. He just kind of gets that respect. That's something that's hard to find, and Deshaun has that."
Watson displayed this leadership early in his time at Clemson, and Swinney said it was strongest when he was leading by example. In meeting rooms, Watson had a presence that made players want to work harder and get better.
"He's always taking notes, always writing things down. He's just so engaged in everything," Swinney said. "Every time I'm around him, whether he's heard something 100 times, he's so engaged as if he's never heard it. And that sends such a great message to everyone else. That's a way to impact your teammates without ever saying a word."
"Learning a new language"
The hardest part for Watson during this transition is starting from scratch and learning the terminology and playbook of an NFL system, according to O'Brien. The basics are even tough, things that most people don't think about, such as how the team huddles, how to call a play and the verbiage of a play call. The list goes on.
"It's like learning a new language," O'Brien said.
But Watson isn't a stranger to the challenges of quickly learning a complex scheme. He had to do the same thing at Clemson. Jeff Scott recalled how Watson blew away the Tigers' coaching staff with how quickly he picked up the playbook as a true freshman.
"His whole freshman year, we set the world record for using the word 'wow' on the headsets." Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott
While preparing for the first game of the 2014 season against Georgia, Clemson's coaching staff warned their quarterbacks about an exotic blitz the Bulldogs might run that would cause a problem if they didn't make a major pre-snap adjustment. It was a blitz the defense brought less than 2 percent of the time, but because of the problems it could cause if Georgia ran it, the Tigers wanted to be prepared.
On the first series of Watson's college career, Georgia called that blitz. Watson saw it coming immediately before the snap, made the calls to his teammates to make the adjustment and threw a 30-yard touchdown over the defender in a very tight window.
"That whole scenario is something you would hope your junior or senior veteran quarterback would be able to do," Scott said. "And for him to be able to go in his very first drive as a true freshman on that stage and not only see it, recognize it, make the adjustments and then be able to stand in the pocket and be able to make that tight throw in that window, that was a moment that all of us on the headsets went, ‘Wow. This kid really is special.' That was a really big moment for us.
"His whole freshman year, we set the world record for using the word ‘wow' on the headsets."
It might not be long before the Texans' coaching staff is having the same reaction. During the Texans' mandatory minicamp, O'Brien said Watson was getting "better every day." At his introductory news conference, Watson promised to "be a sponge" when he got to Houston, and thus far, he has been that.
"He's done a great job of taking the information from the night before and taking it to the field," O'Hara said. "He's really been ahead of the game with that, and that's been good to see.”
One of the knocks on Watson is the spread offense he ran at Clemson. The Tigers' system has typically placed some limitations on the quarterback so they can play up-tempo, according to Scott. But the offensive coordinator insisted that Watson changed that approach, taking over the protections and earning the right to have "a lot of freedom in the offense to change plays" at the line of scrimmage.
O'Brien said the Texans noticed that while watching Watson's film from Clemson.
"We studied every game that he played. There were several things that were put on his plate in his career," O'Brien said. "I can tell you just from watching film, he had to do several things, whether it was signaling a formation to wide receivers or changing protection at the line of scrimmage or going from one play to the next."
For the coaching staff that knows Watson the best, it was irritating to see a pre-draft focus on something the young quarterback could not control.
"That was something that was frustrating for us as coaches over the last six months, listening to the stuff that we would hear when people may question Deshaun and the offense he played in, the terminology and whether he could pick that up," Scott said. "And there's no doubt, for all quarterbacks, there's a transition. It's probably the toughest transition in all of major league sports, going to be an NFL quarterback. But we know Deshaun better than anybody. And Deshaun is one of these guys that he was always thirsty for more.
"He stretched us as coaches. We put in more stuff because he wanted more stuff. He could take everything you could give him and more. And he's one of these guys that, you tell him one time, and he gets it. He's a perfectionist. He's going to work on it. You can tell him something in a meeting, and three weeks later, he can bring it right back up and know exactly where it is in his notebook.
"And I think a lot of people on the outside that didn't know Deshaun as well as we did, they could see his athletic ability, the throws that he can make and his savviness in games, but they could not really understand how smart [he is]. … I feel one of his strengths is his football IQ and his knowledge. ... He just processes things so quickly."
Ready to compete
With training camp approaching, Smith and O’Brien will soon have a decision to make: Sit Watson and let him learn, or truly let him compete with Savage for the starting job. Even if Savage begins the season as Houston’s starter, he likely will be on a short leash. If he is ineffective early in the season -- or is unable to stay healthy -- the Texans might have little choice but to turn to Watson.
As a player who started at Clemson and was a five-star recruit out of high school, Watson is used to being the No. 1 guy. But it didn't start out that way. Watson got injured during spring football before his freshman season, so Clemson gave senior Cole Stoudt the starting job. But the Tigers still got Watson some playing time, and over a couple of games, he took advantage of his opportunity and was named the Tigers' starting quarterback.
Watson said he plans to employ the same mindset as he tries to win the quarterback job in Houston.
"I was a starter at Clemson the past three years, but each and every day, I would go into the day thinking I'm not the starter and I could lose my job. So for me, that's natural," Watson said. "I'm a competitor. I'm going to compete each and every day to get better."
Scott said Watson's demeanor stood out to him after Watson missed out on the starting job as a freshman because "he never was panicking early in the year that he's got to start. He knew he was going to get his opportunities."
While Watson has, of course, communicated his desire to start for the Texans, Swinney said he can't see there being any drama from Watson over the starting job.
"If he's the starter, great. If he's not, you won't hear a word from Deshaun," Swinney said. "He's just going to keep working and show up every day and keep preparing for when his time comes. That's just how he is. He is a low-maintenance superstar."
Even though Savage has played in only five games in two NFL seasons, he certainly has a leg up in his knowledge of O'Brien's system. However, he is still an unproven starter who hasn't been able to stay healthy. And now the guy many consider to be the best rookie quarterback prospect is waiting in the wings.
Whether Watson is the starter in Week 1 of 2017 or Week 1 of 2018 or anytime in between, the Texans hope they have found their first true franchise quarterback.