- Jared Shanker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Many college football fans don't yet know the name Deshaun Watson. That makes sense, too, as he has yet to complete his senior season at Gainesville (Ga.) High.
But that doesn't mean expectations aren't already high for the 2014 quarterback, and he can thank -- or blame -- his predecessors for that.
Watson, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound specimen, is the top-ranked senior passer in the ESPN 300. That distinction puts him in the same category as Christian Hackenberg, Matt Barkley and Terrelle Pryor. What do those three have in common? All started during their freshman season at some point.
When Watson enrolls at Clemson in January, he will be joining a program bereft of an experienced quarterback. Tajh Boyd, an early 2013 Heisman candidate, will be on his way to the NFL, giving Watson an opportunity to earn the starting job during spring practice, which is exactly what Barkley did in 2009 when Mark Sanchez left USC.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has already told Watson the door is open to become the starting quarterback if he can outwork and outplay Chad Kelly, a highly rated 2012 recruit, and Cole Stoudt. Watson, the Peach State's record-holder in passing yards and touchdowns, believes he has the tools to make an immediate impact.
"I can move in the pocket and can run. I make good decisions and can make any throw," Watson said. "I'm a leader and a team player. I'm a freshman walking into a big-time program like Clemson, and if I take over the job, I've been looking up Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston to see how they've handled it."
Winston is another former No. 1 quarterback in the ESPN 300. Like every No. 1 quarterback since 2006, Winston has played as a freshmen -- albeit following a redshirt year. With the exception of 2010 No. 1 Philip Sims, every No. 1 quarterback in the ESPN 300 started multiple games by their sophomore seasons.
Quarterbacks in general are playing earlier in their careers. Former No. 1 quarterbacks Hackenberg, Barkley, Pryor, Mitch Mustain and Jimmy Clausen all started by Week 4 of their freshman seasons. In all, 21 true freshmen have started games since 2011.
And it's not just the elite high school quarterbacks landing starting roles early. Texas Tech is rotating two freshman quarterbacks, including walk-on Baker Mayfield. Red Raiders first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, who helped turn Johnny Manziel into Heisman winner Johnny Football as a redshirt freshman, says quarterbacks are adjusting quicker to the college game than ever before.
"It's due to a bunch of factors, No. 1 being a lot of them are running similar spread offenses to colleges [in high school]," Kingsbury said. "Also, the year-round 7-on-7, they get so many more throws and reps, and a lot of these quarterbacks are doing the quarterback mentor and private lessons with quarterback gurus. Anytime you're working on your craft year round, your development will be accelerated, and that's what I think you're seeing from these guys playing early and playing well."
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who had first-round NFL QBs in Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel and looks to have a third in Winston, says over the past four or five years, young quarterbacks have had a better sense of what the position entails when they leave high school.
"Those guys are definitely more prepared because they're doing it more and getting exposed to a lot more knowledge at a younger age, no doubt," Fisher said.
Bruce Miller, Watson's high school coach, agreed with Fisher and Kingsbury and said his variation of the spread offense is close enough to Clemson's that his star pupil will have less of a learning curve than he would have had a decade ago. Miller, in his 41st year as a coach, said Watson has run the spread at Gainesville since the seventh grade and has been the starter since the season opener as a freshman. Once Watson learns the Clemson terminology and grows accustomed to the speed of the game, Miller believes Watson can make an early impact.
Physically, Miller says Watson could stand to get a little thicker but notes it won't take long for the Clemson strength staff to build upon Watson's frame. Mentally, Miller has no doubts Watson will have a smooth transition to the Tigers' film room and positional meetings.
"He has a complete understand of the game," Miller said. "He has so much latitude in our offense to check off. It's amazing how many times he's correct. I've called a play from the sideline and it'll probably gain six yards, and he sees something that will gain 15 or 20."
Playing as a freshman was not a factor in Watson's decision when he committed to the Tigers back in February 2012, but it could become a reality when he steps on campus just a few days after playing in the Under Armour All-America Game in early January 2014.
He admits the first few weeks will be a big step and he might feel a little nervous, but he expects to get comfortable quickly. And once that happens, he believes his name could eventually be mentioned in the same breath as Hackenberg, Winston, Barkley and beyond.
"Once I get comfortable and confident, the sky is the limit for me," Watson said. "It'll take a couple days, but when I get used to college, I'll be able to do whatever I want [on the field] and play the best I can."
True freshmen quarterbacks are making a bigger impact than ever before, and No. 1 signal caller Deshaun Watson hopes to continue the trend at Clemson next year.