- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- They paraded through here the past month like men in search of the answer to some great truth, certain that the key to its unlocking existed, yet visiting primarily out of obligation in the face of tough odds.
Coordinators Tom Herman of Ohio State, Mike Bobo and Todd Grantham of Georgia, Doug Nussmeier of Alabama and others came.
They came to see Deshaun Watson, ESPN's No. 1-rated dual-threat quarterback prospect in the Class of 2014, a 6-foot-3, 186-pound dynamo who won a state title last fall and has accumulated, in three seasons, more all-purpose yards and passing touchdowns than anyone ever to play high school football in Georgia.
He's a good student, a solid citizen, and a great classmate and teammate. He was the second QB invited to the Elite 11 finals this summer and was among the first round of invitees to the Under Armour All-America Game next winter.
Watson committed to Clemson 15 months ago. He's set to enroll next January. He doesn't appear likely to change his mind.
"They want to build the program around me," Watson said. "Once I saw that, I took it and ran with it."
Sure, he lives in Southeastern Conference country, 40 miles northwest of Athens, Ga., but he feels a calling to the ACC school in bordering South Carolina. Coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris were the first to offer Watson two years ago, the spring after his freshman season.
"I don't see him coming off it," Gainesville High School coach Bruce Miller said. "I personally don't. He's stayed so strong for two years. I just don't see it happening."
Still, the coaches flocked this spring to Gainesville, a charming little suburb nestled far enough north along I-985 to escape the grasp of nearby Atlanta.
Watson was always cordial. He turned away no one. Usually, he said, Miller or Gainesville assistant Wayne Jones kept him aware of the scheduled visitors. The quarterback would stop by his coach's office and talk for about five minutes before they all went out to practice, where Watson could tantalize them some more.
The thing is, the powerful men who sent those coordinators to Gainesville -- coaches like Urban Meyer and Mark Richt and Nick Saban -- might visit in person next fall. And that's when it could really get interesting.
For now, the coaches just want to chat, get to know him. Watson said he's not making any promises to visit their campuses.
But what happens when the high pressure arrives?
"I think it's going to be difficult," Watson said. "I'll take it one day at a time and see how it works out."
Yes, according to Miller, "something could happen."
"It's his decision," said the veteran coach, who sent QB Blake Sims to Alabama, linebacker A.J. Johnson to Tennessee and receiver TJ Jones to Notre Dame in recent years. "He's got to live with it. I'll support him whatever he wants to do."
And that's where we stand, some seven-and-a-half months before the Clemson coaches can breathe a sigh.
Watson says all the right things about the Tigers. Faced with the possibility that he may never play there for Morris, who interviewed at Texas Tech and North Carolina after last season, Watson doesn't flinch.
"I'm committed to the whole university," he said. "It's where I want to be."
Yet the door remains intriguingly cracked.
The visit last week from Nussmeier, Alabama's offensive coordinator who came with a scholarship offer, caught the attention of Watson, who is normally underwhelmed by recruiting developments.
"That was a big offer," he said. "It was a pretty cool thing."
He holds no ill will against Georgia, which waited long after Clemson and other programs to offer. Watson noted that he is, in fact, the only 2014 QB with an offer from the Bulldogs.
Clemson coaches told Watson they wouldn't pursue another QB this year. The Tigers did not sign a quarterback in the 2013 class. And 2012 signee Chad Kelly suffered a torn ACL last month in the Clemson spring game.
Even with incumbent starter Tajh Boyd back as a senior next fall, the Tigers are growing thin at the position.
The handling of Watson represents something of a leap for Swinney, who already has been burned in Georgia. He lost the nation's No. 1 prospect in the 2013 class, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville (Ga.) Grayson, to Ole Miss after Nkemdiche verbally committed to Clemson in June 2012.
Also last year, touted receiver Demarcus Robinson of Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County signed with Florida after giving a verbal pledge to Clemson.
Two years ago, Clemson failed to sign a player from Georgia.
Watson could be the guy to break the trend. That said, his loss would likely hurt even more than the pain inflicted by Nkemdiche, who committed last year while on campus at the same time as Watson.
"I didn't really feel the vibe that he wanted to be there," Watson said.
Watson wants to be there. Eventually, though, he's got to put his foot down. It's only fair to Clemson. If he's truly sold on the Tigers, Watson can't flirt too long into his senior year with Meyer, Richt or Saban.
"If anybody has to be the bad guy," Miller said, "it's going to be me."
Watson, no doubt, is a cool customer. He carries himself with a confidence reminiscent of top QB prospects from the past two years -- guys like Jameis Winston (now at Florida State), Alabama newcomer Cooper Bateman and USC's Max Browne.
Miller said he wants Watson to work on his footwork and reading defenses as a senior. Watson said he needs to improve his vocal leadership.
He looks like the total package, the kind of prospect important coaches will visit to steal a five-minute conversation and the promise of nothing more.
The kid is nice, too. On Thursday, he offered to help gather this reporter's equipment at the end of an interview on the high school practice field.
Perhaps, actually, Watson could develop a bit more of a mean streak. Learn to say no. That kind of thing goes a long way in recruiting.
No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect Deshaun Watson has been committed to Clemson for over a year, but the Tigers' work isn't done. They've been through this before (see: Nkemdiche, Robert).