Saturday May 28th, 2016 2:30PM

Watson's growth key to Red Elephants' hopes

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- No more than five minutes removed from perhaps the best game of his young career, Deshaun Watson was one of the few people clad in red and white not wildly celebrating.

Surrounded by a throng of victorious Gainesville football fans, the Red Elephants quarterback pondered the weight of his team's 55-15 win over rival North Hall.

"It was big; I think it was big for our confidence, and we wanted to show everybody that Gainesville is still at the top in Region 8-AAA," Watson said. "But we also have to keep getting better, and I know we can play better."

They are not sentiments typical of most sophomores. But as his eight-touchdown, 440-yard-performance highlighted on Friday, Watson isn't like most sophomores. Not in ability -- the dual-threat has passed for 700 yards and run for 225 yards so far this season in helping Gainesville to a 2-1 record -- and not in experience -- as a freshman, Watson started all 12 games for Gainesville and will be engaging in his 16th varsity contest on Friday night at Franklin County. And as the Red Elephants continue their quest for a fourth straight region title, Watson will play a starring role.

"You could see his maturation starting last year as he went through the season," Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said. "When we got to the eighth, ninth, 10th game and the playoffs, he just kind of understood things, and he's taking it to a whole new level this year."

That was certainly the case on Friday when Watson keyed the Red Elephants' offense and helped Gainesville pull away from a 14-8 advantage just before halftime to a 35-8 lead midway through the third quarter.

"He's just kind of the guy that makes us go on offense," Miller said. "If he's on, it makes all the rest of the guys want to be on, and it's just fun to watch him execute like he did the other night."

He's not even afraid to get some dirt under his fingernails -- as he showed on perhaps the biggest play of the game, throwing a block that helped spring receiver Keyontra Harrison for an 87-yard gain that turned the tide in Gainesville's favor for good.

"I always tell 'Tra' that if you get in that situation, I'll throw a block for you, and I got out in front of him to do that," said Watson, who connected on a short pass to Harrison and then surged downfield to help the speedy receiver -- who reversed field and picked up a number of blocks before sprinting almost the entire field, turning a second-and-30 into first-and-goal at the North Hall 4.

"That's the kind of players we have on this team," Watson said. "We've got some explosive guys who can turn the game around; even the JV guys can make big plays."

Yet much of the Red Elephants' spread attack hinges on the play of Watson, who worked hard in the offseason to improve last year's strong start that saw the then-freshman throw for 2,088 yards and 17 touchdowns against 7 interceptions and rush for 569 yards and 5 TDs.

"We know Deshaun and what he can do. But I think the thing that has really changed between this year and last year is his mastery of the game situation and understanding what needs to be done," Miller said. "Three or four times the other night he checked out of plays, into the right plays we needed to be in. Right now he's playing like a senior even though he's a sophomore."

Watson's relative youth could prove a stumbling block in other areas, yet he says that his teammates -- veterans and novices alike -- have accepted him as a leader on offense.

"When I say something, my teammates will listen up; if they don't agree, they'll tell me, but they'll listen to me, which is big," Watson said. "I have total confidence in my receivers, backs and offensive line, and they have confidence in me."

After the way Watson played last season and from what he's shown so far in 2011, it's not a huge leap of faith. Coaches too are impressed by what they've seen from the quarterback, beyond just his athletic talent.

"The biggest thing is that he shows up ready to play every Friday," said Miller, who knows that the Red Elephants' spread concept is not easy or quick to master. "The biggest thing is understanding coverages and understanding defenses, understanding what hurts different defenses. For instance, if they give you man coverage and have an all-out blitz coming, knowing what you've got to get in to is huge. And I think the thing that has really helped Deshaun is that he not only understands the game, he studies it."

Yet Watson -- who already has a scholarship offer from Clemson and interest from several other top tier programs, including Florida, Alabama and Auburn -- also knows he must continue to improve.

"I need to work on reading defenses better, my delivery on throws, my footwork... everything really. It's not perfect so I need to keep working," said Watson, who counts standouts such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck amongst his idols.

With the the subregion schedule still to come, Gainesville has its sites set squarely on defending the Region 8-AAA crown for a fourth straight season, and Watson believes it is a goal within the Red Elephants' grasp.

"This whole team wants to practice like champs, and we have plenty of work ethic," Watson said. "We've just got to come together as a family and keep improving. If we do that, the sky's the limit."

The way he's been playing, the same could be said for Watson.
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