NCF On The Trail: Deshaun Watson

It’s been seven years since a team other than Florida State or Clemson won the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and after the Seminoles and Tigers each signed a top-five recruiting class this year, the balance of power doesn’t appear poised to shift any time soon.

That might be a problem for the ACC overall. With FSU and Clemson jockeying for command of a conference that has struggled to keep up appearances compared with the neighboring SEC, consolidating power at the top while the rest of the league picks up the scraps might not be the best way to convince the public -- or future playoff committees -- that there is more to the ACC than its top two teams.

But what if a great rivalry at the top also means a boon for the teams farther down the ladder? Consider it trickle-down economics for the college football set.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson coach Dabo Swinney, left, and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher lead elite programs that are forcing the rest of the ACC to keep pace.
The last time the ACC signed two top-five classes was in 2008, back when the playoff was a pipe dream, conference realignment was but a whisper, and Deshaun Watson was in the seventh grade. Miami and Clemson put together the nation’s two best signing classes, but neither program saw immediate dividends. An NCAA investigation unmoored any hope the Hurricanes could return to national prominence, and Clemson parted ways with its head coach just eight months after he signed the country’s No. 2 class.

At the same time, the balance of power was shifting in the SEC. Alabama had hired Nick Saban the year before, and by the end of 2008, the Crimson Tide were back in the national spotlight. Auburn, meanwhile, finished 5-7, and the gauntlet was thrown.

Over the next few years, the longtime rivals traded blows -- on the recruiting trail, on the fund-raising circuit, and on the field. The SEC was already the nation’s preeminent conference, but investment in maintaining that success grew exponentially. Alabama and Auburn paced the growth, but if Georgia and Tennessee and LSU and Florida wanted to keep pace, they had to go all-in, too. Cut-throat coaching changes, major renovations in facilities, bloody recruiting battles, huge pay raises for assistant coaches -- these became the norm. It was an arms race, and the two teams at the top set the pace.

The same groundwork isn’t there for the ACC just yet, but what Florida State and Clemson are doing could set a similar precedent. Just look at what’s happened in the past few months.

NC State had its best signing day in years.

Virginia Tech signed a solid class in spite of hot-seat rumors for head coach Frank Beamer. That group joins an already outstanding group of rising freshmen in Blacksburg.

Duke signed its best class under David Cutcliffe, too, while renovations to the stadium are ongoing.

North Carolina is still fending off its own NCAA black cloud, but to fix its disastrous defense, it brought in the same coach who engineered Auburn’s national title in 2010.

Overall last week, the ACC had six teams finish in the top 30 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings (the most by any conference other than the SEC), had 12 in the top 50, and saw Louisville, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all jump at least 13 spots from the previous year’s rankings.

Meanwhile, FSU and Clemson keep chugging along, raising the bar again and again. The Seminoles will send more players to the NFL combine this year than any other program in the nation. Clemson just announced a $75 million investment in upgrading its athletics facilities. These two programs push the goal line a little further down the field, and everyone else is forced to keep pace.

That is not to suggest the ACC is poised to change perceptions on the national level just yet. The league signed 47 members of the ESPN 300 this year, which would sound pretty nice if the SEC hadn’t nabbed 116. Those six ACC programs that finished among the top 30 signing classes still represent just half of the SEC’s tally. North Carolina and Miami still must escape NCAA purgatory and build consistent winners, Virginia Tech must capitalize on its young talent to salvage Beamer’s job, and the young coaches at NC State and Wake Forest need to prove they can develop the talent they’re bringing in.

But there is a standard being set at the top, with Florida State and Clemson upping the ante in recruiting, player development and financial investment in their programs, and that’s good for everyone. It’s not Auburn-Alabama yet, and it probably never will be, but it’s a spotlight on a conference that has long coveted a bigger stage, and it’s a pace-setter for the second tier of the league that now needs to run a bit faster just to keep up.

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: With the release of the RecruitingNation class rankings, the focus was on SEC schools, but Clemson is quietly putting together a tremendous offensive class, and it added another key weapon on Thursday. Plus, there’s not just one but two elite 2015 tight ends in Arkansas.

Early Offer: 2015 begins now 

February, 7, 2014
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: The ink was barely dry on the letters of intent for 2014 class when one of the best for the 2015 class came off the board; and what schools and recruiters have jumped out of the gate with success with players that won’t sign for another 360-plus days.

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Ultimate 300: ACC's top classes 

January, 30, 2014

Clemson has the most top-20 players in the Ultimate ESPN 300, which ranks all top recruits since 2006. Florida State has the most overall. So which ACC school has recruited the best since 2006?

Here is a look at the five ACC schools that consistently put together strong recruiting classes and have developed that high school talent.

1. Florida State
The top of the recruiting rankings often reflect the top of the BCS rankings (see: Alabama), so to those who follow recruiting, it should not have been too much of a surprise to see Florida State finally return to the ranks of college football’s elite. Jimbo Fisher has strung together back-to-back top-two recruiting classes and could claim the recruiting title in 2014. Known for developing quarterbacks, Fisher turned E.J. Manuel into a first-round pick and coached Jameis Winston to a Heisman Trophy. The defensive-line recruiting has been outstanding, too. Bjoern Werner was a first-round pick in 2013, and Timmy Jernigan has the looks of a first-round selection. The same could be said for former No. 1 recruit Mario Edwards, an FSU sophomore who was among the best defensive players in the national championship game. In total, the Seminoles have 18 players in the Ultimate 300, by far the most of any ACC school. One of the best indicators of how well a team recruits is to look four years down the road at the NFL draft. And in 2013, the 11 Seminoles drafted were the most of any school.

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Recruit and return: Clemson Tigers 

January, 4, 2014
Under coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson has finally rid itself of the underachievers label that haunted the program for much of the last decade. The program has turned the corner, and the Tigers are putting together the kind of recruiting classes to continually compete for ACC championships. Now Swinney can pitch an Orange Bowl win to recruits in 2014 and beyond, too.

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Under Armour Game predictions 

December, 27, 2013
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If past Under Armour All-America Games have taught us anything, it's that we should expect the unexpected. Yes, there are some announcements where there’s not a lot of drama and it’s just a case of a player going public with a decision that everybody has already known about for months. There will be others where there is plenty of suspense throughout the week of practices and the pick will cause controversy in the end. Heck, this is the same game that we saw Landon Collins’ mom become a YouTube sensation when she disagreed with her son’s decision to commit to Alabama and spurn LSU. It’s what makes the Under Armour Game special, and ESPN RecruitingNation’s Jeremy Crabtree has some predictions on what we’ll see over the next seven days.

Fournette won’t be bothered by attention
When you’re the nation’s No. 1 player, you’re already used to the spotlight and never-ending attention from fans and media. But at the UA Game, No. 1-ranked Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/St. Augustine) is going to be in a fishbowl even more than before. Everything he does this week will be documented for the whole world to see. Every rep in practice. Every interview after. Even when he’s hanging out in the hotel, there will likely be somebody there to tweet or discuss it. That will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Fournette, but those expecting him to fall at some point this week will be sorely disappointed. Fournette will prove once again on and off the field why he’s the best in the country and serve as an example of how other elite prospects should handle the recruiting process for years to come.

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Midyear signings: Clemson

December, 20, 2013
According to, the following players have signed financial aid agreements with Clemson:

Deshaun Watson, QB-DT, Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville
HT: 6-3 WT: 190
Positional Rank: #1 QB-DT
Stars: 4
ESPN 300 (#14)

Artavis Scott, WR, Tarpon Springs, Fla./East Lake
HT: 5-11 WT: 179
Positional Rank: #9 WR
Stars: 4
ESPN 300 (#83)

Demarre Kitt, WR, Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek
HT: 6-0 WT: 196
Positional Rank: #22 WR
Stars: 4
ESPN 300 (#165)

Kyrin Priester, WR, Snellville, Ga./Fork Union Military
HT: 6-1 WT: 190
Positional Rank: N/A Post-Grad
Stars: 4

Chris Register, OLB, Greensboro, N.C./Dudley
HT: 6-3 WT: 230
Positional Rank: #25 OLB
Stars: 4

ACC signing day storylines 

December, 17, 2013
Signing day and Feb. 5 still might feel far away (50 days away to be exact), but for coaches the sense of urgency has officially set in. The offseason dead period was extended and began Sunday. It will last a month into mid-January, leaving coaches with only a few weekends left to host recruits on campus visits and meet prospects and their families inside their homes.

So with signing day closer than it appears in college football’s mirrors, here are 10 storylines in the ACC to watch between now and Feb. 5.

1. Who will sign the ACC’s top class?

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Under Armour game storylines: ACC 

December, 5, 2013
The rosters are set, plane tickets purchased and coaching staffs assembled. The 2014 Under Armour All-America Game is less than a month away.

Deshaun Watson
Courtesy of IntersportDeshaun Watson could be the starter from Day 1 at Clemson.
With nearly all of the country’s elite prospects all together, there are bountiful storylines leading up to and during the Jan. 2 game in St. Petersburg, Fla. Here are five for ACC fans:

1. Will Deshaun Watson follow the footsteps of Jameis Winston and Christian Hackenberg? Both Winston and Hackenberg were the No. 1 quarterbacks in their respective classes and played in the Under Armour Game. Both then went on to have great freshman seasons (Winston after a redshirt year) and have their teams in position to make waves on a national level the next few seasons. Watson (Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville) is the No. 1 quarterback for 2014 and will enter a similar situation to Hackenberg’s. Clemson will have an opening at quarterback in 2014, and Watson will enroll at Clemson following the game. He will have to beat out 2012 Under Armour All-American Chad Kelly, but there is a legitimate chance Watson could be the starter from Day 1 for the Tigers. He is that good.

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Tigers add 2015 recruit, wait on 2014s 

November, 24, 2013
This was Clemson’s big official visit weekend for the 2014 class, but it was a 2015 recruit who stole the headlines in Death Valley at least for a few hours.

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Major talent visiting Clemson vs. Citadel 

November, 22, 2013
Clemson hopes to have a very productive visit weekend for their last home game of the season against Clemson at noon Satirday. Highlighted by five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the expected list of recruits is filled with quality, and the Tigers hope that some of their commitments that will be attending will put in some work, too.

Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County): It's hard to imagine there is a bigger prospect left on the board for Clemson than McMillan. The country's top inside linebacker recruit is expected to be in Clemson this weekend for the Tigers' final home game. Clemson's staff has done a good job in the past with McMillan, being one of the first to identify him as a priority. Ohio State is in the thick of it for McMillan, too, so will this visit be enough for Clemson to give themselves an edge before he makes his decision?

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ACC recruiting storylines: Nov. 21 

November, 21, 2013

Clemson's big visit weekend highlights this week's storylines in the ACC. Also, can Florida State get a running back target into town this weekend, and can Virginia Tech continue its lead for a three-star tailback?

Big weekend for Clemson

Clemson's last home game of the season is going to a be a big one for visitors.

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Video: Watson finds strength from his mom

November, 4, 2013

As his mother battles cancer, Clemson commit Deshaun Watson draws strength from her as he tries to prepare for a bright future in football and beyond the game, as well.

UA Game jersey tour: Deshaun Watson

November, 4, 2013

GAINESVILLE, Ga. – Senior quarterback Deshaun Watson (Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville) was presented his honorary game jersey for the 2014 Under Armour All-America High School Football Game at his high school on Friday during the American Family Insurance Selection Tour.

Deshaun Watson
Courtesy of IntersportDeshaun Watson says he's eager to play with the nation's best at the UA Game.
Watson, a Clemson commitment, is one of 90 players selected to compete in the seventh-annual UA Game presented by American Family Insurance. The 2014 game is set for 4 p.m. ET Jan. 2 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and will be televised on ESPN.

“I want to thank Under Armour and American Family Insurance for selecting me, and everyone else that has supported me and my family,” Watson said.

Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller says the Watson was an excellent choice.

“First of all, this couldn’t go to a more deserving person,” Miller said. “I tell people all the time he’s never played a JV down in football. I remember going to him when he was 14 years old as a freshman and saying I’m going to start you tonight, and by the way I’m going to start you against Buford. He went in and threw three touchdown passes, and as I like to say … the rest is history. Thank you, Deshaun, for everything you have done for us.”

The record-setting quarterback from the Peach State is eager to test himself against the rest of the top players in the nation.

"It’s just something I always dreamed about when I was little. I always thinking about playing in an All-American game, and the Under Armour All-America Game was the one game I always wanted to play in, so once I got the opportunity and invite I chose it,” Watson said. “Just being around all of the great players and learning new things … playing with the best and seeing all the best players from around the country. Being able to play with the best players in the country, interact with them, and have fun will be great."

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Watson is the No. 14 overall prospect and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the class. He committed to Clemson over Auburn, Ohio State, Florida State and a number of others.

Top 5 under-the-radar quarterbacks 

October, 16, 2013
Everyone knows about top-ranked quarterbacks such as Deshaun Watson and Keller Chryst. But those aren't the only ones with a chance to make an impact in college. The following five players may have flown under the radar -- for reasons ranging from injury to playing in a non-traditional football area -- but four seem to have found the right college fit and therefore could excel at the next level.

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