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The Branding of the Best QB in College Football

Deshaun Watson roars into his junior season, hoping to carry Clemson back to the playoff. But he has another goal in mind for 2016: hone his image.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Deshaun Watson needs no introduction.

Not after the 2015 campaign, when he became the first quarterback in FBS history to produce more than 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards — surpassing the former mark during Clemson’s national title game loss to Alabama — in a single season. Not after he won the Davey O’Brien and Manning awards, presented annually to the nation’s top signal-caller. Not after he was named the ACC Player of the Year and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

As a sophomore, Watson went from being a promising young talent to college football’s QB du jour. He carried Clemson to a 14-win season and has made the school a favorite to earn a repeat College Football Playoff berth in 2016. He blossomed into one of the sport’s unquestioned megastars; so what will he do for an encore?

“I’m the type of person that always strives to be great,” Watson told the Associated Press in May, at the Manning Award ceremony. “I’m not great just yet. There’s a lot more of the game and the techniques and fundamentals and mechanics that I have to improve on, so I’m working to be great one day.”

Watson said he still has to work on things like eye movement and hand placement. Already an athletic wonder, he’s focused on leading Clemson through a toughening ACC and back to the national title game, where this time he wants to finish the job. Beyond team goals, however, Watson has another 2016 aspiration: He wants to build his brand.

The problem is, he doesn’t seem to have pinpointed what that is yet. “Just, you know, a good brand for Deshaun Watson,” he said at ACC media days in July, breaking into the third person as easily as he breaks through opposing defensive fronts. “You know, does his stuff in the right way all the time.”

“A good guy on the field — he respects the game,” he continued. “He really understands that football has been there longer than he [has] and it can be taken away any second, any minute. And then just being a good person off the field — student-athlete, civic leader. … Of course, I’m going to make mistakes and have flaws. But at the same time, try to do it the right way.”

In other words, Watson would like to take the all-around good-guy reputation of Marcus Mariota and blend it with the personality and panache of Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel (while eschewing the serious issues that engulfed both at various points throughout their careers). For everything Watson and the Tigers accomplished in 2015, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior wants more: He’d like to have his top-QB-in-college-football cake and eat it, too.

Bruce Miller has a story to tell. It’s about the first time he met the kid who would become the greatest player he’s ever coached.

“My first interaction with [Watson] was at a middle school football game,” says Miller, the longtime head coach at Gainesville High School in Gainesville, Georgia. “Believe it or not, at the time he was playing outside linebacker.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

Watson was also the backup quarterback. After the starting QB got hurt right before halftime, Miller went to check on the injured quarterback and found himself pressed into duty. “While I was down there, the middle school coach said, ‘I think we’re gonna play Deshaun in the second half.’ I said, ‘That’s fine,’” Miller recalls. “Deshaun came over to me and he said, ‘Coach, I know everything to do, except we quick kick a lot on third down. I don’t know how to quick kick.’ I said, ‘Come over here and let me see if I can show you.’ So I went over there, showed him one time. Next time he did it perfectly. And I didn’t show him anything else.”

As the story goes, the precocious Watson threw a long touchdown pass on his first play from scrimmage. He’s been a quarterback ever since. A four-year starter at Gainesville, he went on to set Georgia high school records for career touchdowns (218) and total yards (17,134), emerging as the top-ranked QB and the no. 16 overall recruit in the class of 2014, according to ESPN. Asked what Watson was like as a player when he arrived with the Red Elephants, Miller laughs. “About like he is now,” he says.

So maybe that’s what Watson’s brand is entering this season: the kid who’s always had it figured out. After all, he’s handled life’s twists and turns with a calmness that belies his age. Miller says that when Watson’s mother was diagnosed with tongue cancer while he was in high school, the then-teenager “handled it a lot better than I would have. He handled it like a pro.” And though a rash of injuries caused him to miss most of the second half of his freshman campaign at Clemson in 2014, he still managed to throw for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against only two interceptions. His third collegiate passing attempt produced a beautiful 30-yard score.

It all makes it easy to forget that Watson is still a 20-year-old kid who quotes Future in tweets, enjoys sour gummy worms, and is confident enough to rock a bright red suit. He’s made ascending to stardom look natural, but now he faces the challenge of meeting or exceeding expectations in the spotlight. The 2016 season is Watson’s chance to fulfill his college dreams and boost his NFL draft stock, sure, but it’s also his key to shaping his image — something that he hopes will far outlive those short-range goals.

This year, Stephen Curry leads all athletes in the major team sports with a 69 percent awareness score and a Q Score — a metric that measures audience engagement — of 34, according to the Q Scores Company, a market research outfit. J.J. Watt leads NFL players with a 58 percent awareness score and a Q Score of 30, and Kris Bryant leads MLB players with a 38 percent awareness score and a Q Score of 25. How Watson fits into that puzzle is yet to be determined.

Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company, says Watson doesn’t have a Q Score yet because, well, he remains an amateur athlete in the NCAA. But NFL players generally have above-average Q Scores when compared to guys in the NBA and MLB. “A lot of it depends on how much notoriety they’ve been getting during that season,” Schafer says of college football stars’ abilities to turn into effective pro pitchmen. “Are they a Heisman Trophy winner? Are they on a championship team? … They generally come in above average when we first measure them, not necessarily in terms of overall awareness but in terms of emotional connection the public or sports fans have with them.”

All of which is to say that Watson is in a unique position to fortify his connection with sports fans this fall. Over the next four months, he’ll have the chance not only to build on all that he’s achieved so far, but also to elevate himself — his brand — to new heights.

Part of that comes down to performance. In addition to Watson, the Clemson offense returns stud running back Wayne Gallman (1,527 rushing yards, 13 TDs) and wideouts Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow (combined 1,393 receiving yards and 11 TDs). It also gets back dangerous wide receiver Mike Williams, who posted a 1,030-yard season as a sophomore in 2014 and then missed most of 2015 after suffering a freak neck injury in Week 1. And while the defense will have to replace standout players like Shaq Lawson, Mackensie Alexander, Kevin Dodd, and T.J. Green, the offense appears primed to cover for any slippage on the other side of the ball.

Part of Watson’s appeal will also come from solidifying his position as the presumptive no. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL draft. In June, analyst Daniel Jeremiah compared Watson, unfavorably, to a certain former Oregon QB: “Watson has a similar skill set to Marcus Mariota, but Mariota is bigger, faster, stronger, and more accurate.” Last month, Pro Football Focus’s John Breitenbach praised Watson’s skill set while noting that sending extra rushers against him seemed to pay dividends in 2015. “He ranked 68th of 70 qualifiers in adjusted completion percentage against the rush,” Breitenbach wrote, “throwing with precision on a lowly 47.6 percent of passes.”

But what college junior doesn’t have work left to do? Despite his flaws, Watson heads into the 2016 campaign as the game’s preeminent player at its premier position. If he can captivate this season — ideally off the field, as well as on it — the kid from the other Gainesville (population 38,712, or a little more than half the Georgia Dome capacity) can gain a foothold in the public consciousness secure enough that he could then use it to vault into the NFL as close to a fully formed star as it’s possible to be three years after starring at a little-known school in a small suburban city.

When ESPN recently ranked the top 100 players in college football, Watson was no. 1. Alabama head coach Nick Saban called him “the most significantly dominant player that we’ve played against since Cam Newton.” And Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, whose team will host the Tigers on October 7, is effusive with his Watson praise. “He has a lot of poise,” Addazio says. “He’s tough. He runs and throws it really well. He’s a difference-maker and one of the elite players in the country right now.

“I think he’s got it. You know? People get caught up on ‘Can you throw it? Can you run it? Blah, blah, blah.’ But does he have it? He’s got it.”

Now all that’s left for Watson is to see just what he can do with it.