CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Deshaun Watson wore four pins on his suit jacket Friday at the 2016 ACC Kickoff. There was a Heisman Trophy pin for his third-place finish in 2015, a Davey O'Brien Award pin for the honor he won as the nation's best quarterback, and a Clemson Tiger pin that symbolized a team that nearly won the national championship last season.
The fourth pin was the most interesting. It said "Ferro Retro," the name of a clothing line brand adopted by Clemson cornerback Marcus Edmond.
"It means attitude, the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you go about your business," Watson said quietly but confidently. "I look at it as a guy that has a hunger to him to be the greatest ever in whatever he do. Just have a swagger about yourself and be that great person that people can relate to."
Deshaun Watson the brand is on full display.
He's the potential No. 1 NFL Draft pick in 2017 who bumped into music star Rihanna while training in Los Angeles. He finds himself five credit hours away from graduating in two-and-a-half years. He has a Habitat for Humanity house and a scholarship fund being created in his honor.
Yes, Watson is the breakout star from the 2015 season. He was so dominant in the College Football Playoff National Championship that Alabama coach Nick Saban made arguably the boldest onside kick call ever in order to keep Watson off the field for one possession in the fourth quarter. After the game, Watson didn't smile or express frustration. He carried himself as a star while methodically answering questions in the locker room and looking to 2016, when he all but predicted a repeat trip to the national title game.
Watson's keen awareness of his public image may be the most fascinating part of his development. He speaks of wanting to create his own brand. This is a college athlete, after all, who has more than 219,000 followers on Twitter and 126,000 followers on Instagram.
The word "brand" sometimes carries negative conniptions to some people. What Watson is selling could be summed up by his Twitter bio: "God, Family, School, Football, Clemson Student-Athlete." People who know Watson swear that how he promotes himself is genuine and reflects how he was raised.
"He's just a kind soul," Clemson president Jim Clements said. "There's something about him when you meet him, you can just tell he's special. Look at the end of last year. He was a Heisman finalist, so much media exposure, but he was just so calm and such a solid leader. I don't think this goes to his head. I think he will handle all of this like a champ."
What kind of brand does Watson want?
"A good guy on the field -- he respects the game," said Watson while speaking in the third person. "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, does his stuff in the right way all the time. Of course, I'm going to make mistakes and have flaws. But at the same time, try to do it the right way."
When we last saw Watson, he was nearly single-handedly defeating Alabama in the final game Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart coached defense together. Watson was so good in that game -- he accounted for 478 of Clemson's 550 yards (405 passing, 73 rushing) -- that Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said he had flashbacks to Vince Young's epic performance vs. USC in 2006.
Watson enjoyed a tremendous sophomore season in 2015, but the Alabama game took his profile and reputation to another level. One NFL scout, who requested anonymity because the NFL doesn't allow public comments about underclassmen, said Watson has positioned himself as the possible No. 1 pick with another strong 2016 season.
"What he did the last few games really helped him, especially in the national championship game against that Alabama defense," the scout said. "They brought a lot of pressure on him, and he was making throws that NFL quarterbacks make. He was delivering the ball with touch, placement, moving around in the pocket, and avoiding the rush to where Alabama actually backed off a little on the blitz.
"Even though there were a lot of great players on both sides of the ball, he looked like someone who was in complete control of the game. I compare him a little bit to Marcus Mariota. Marcus had that same kind of personality -- very low key, didn't say a whole bunch, built very similar, had the running skills, didn't necessarily have the outstanding arm but can deliver the ball with accuracy."
If there's any question about Watson right now, the NFL scout said, it's the desire to see his body become a little thicker and sustain punishment over time. Watson suffered a broken clavicle and a torn ACL as a freshman in 2014.
Watson said he added about 15 pounds since 2015 and now weighs 218. This was the first time he was completely healthy for an entire offseason, which allowed him to do the full complement of workouts and practice the eating regimen he desired.
This summer, Watson trained some in Los Angeles and ran into Rihanna at a restaurant. "It was just a, 'Hey, how are you doing?'" Watson said. "It was real simple. She was on her Anti-World Tour, so I just kind of bumped into her at a restaurant. I hope she knew who I was."
Watson also attended the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana. He said the best advice he received came from Peyton and Eli Manning: "Take care of your business now and always find something you need to work on," he related.
So on Friday, Watson rattled off what he needs to improve on: decision making (he did have a bad clock management play before halftime against Florida State), cut down on turnovers, be a better leader, become more confident in his throws, improve on his pocket presence.
A year ago, Watson became the first FBS player to ever throw for 4,000 yards and run for 1,000. It's possible Watson's statistics could improve in 2016 since Clemson may need to win more shootouts after losing so many defensive starters for the second straight year. The offense is so loaded with skill players that Watson hasn't shied away from saying Clemson could have one of the best offenses in college football history.
"Yes, we have the potential on paper," Watson said. "A lot of people say we could be. We have the talent to. We just have to go out there and earn it."
Last week, Saban gave Watson one of the ultimate compliments by saying he's the best college football player since Cam Newton.
"The comparison is cool," Watson said. "It's a privilege and honor to have that. [Newton] is one of the best to play college football and one of the best in the NFL right now. So it's great to have that. But I understand I have to go earn it and create my own brand."
There's the "brand" word again. Watson has become the face of Habit for Humanity, the non-profit organization that many years ago provided Watson's mother and her children with a home that was furnished by then-NFL star Warrick Dunn's foundation.
Habitat for Humanity is working with Watson to create a scholarship fund for children who grew up in Habitat houses in South Carolina. Fundraising may start soon. Monroe Free, the executive director for the Habitat branch in Greenville, South Carolina, said the goal is to raise enough money, while using Watson as the inspiration, for a couple four-year scholarships to be provided each year. Free said at this point the organization doesn't envision Watson having a role in actual fundraising duties.
"It's something I want to do, but it's something our compliance and PR people are making sure they're taking care of it and they know all the [NCAA] rules," Watson said. "I'd want [the scholarships] to go to kids that have good grades and are on the right path to having success but don't have that financial background to go to college or whatever they want to do in life. You can't just be any child roaming around and not doing the right things [to get the scholarship]."
Free said Habitat is working through Clemson's compliance department to avoid jeopardizing Watson's eligibility and believes the organization has the OK to move forward. This fall, Habitat is also trying to raise $110,000 to build what it's calling The Next Generation House for a family in honor of Watson. Free wouldn't be surprised if enough money is raised to build two houses.
"Deshaun is the poster child for Habitat," Free said. "He's everything that we say that we are in that you can give a family an opportunity to own their own house and something transformative happens to that family. People are lining up to support us because of Deshaun Watson. It's almost like slipping on a rock and falling on a pot of gold."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney calls Watson "the unicorn" because of how unique the quarterback is on and off the field. Watson is taking 17 hours in two summer terms in order to graduate in December with a degree in communication studies because, he said, "you can't play football for the rest of your life so you always have to have a backup plan."
Watson previously told the Charleston Post & Courier that his 19 credit hours in the spring consisted of two online courses in athletic leadership and five campus classes in communication, American literature, sociology and American sign language.
Getting a degree in two-and-a-half years is "insane," Swinney said. "That's the type of focus and drive and that's how he grinds. But that doesn't get a headline. Now let him go get in trouble? Woo. It's going to be all over the place because that's the culture of society out there."
Watson is keenly aware that his life has changed in the past year. He more closely watches where he goes, who he's with, what he's wearing and how he talks.
"Pretty much everything has changed," Watson said. "There's a lot more eyes on me so I have to walk and move and talk in a different way than I did a year ago. When I go out to different places, I can't be sagging [wearing pants significantly below the waist], I can't be cursing, you know what I mean? I can't be with some gangbangers or things like that. I have to walk with the right people and talk in the right way."
Watson said those adjustments are no different than what his mom taught him growing up. If there are negatives to being so famous, Watson realizes the benefits as well.
"This is what every athlete dreams of -- a college athlete with a lot of attention and being one of the best ever so there's always pros and cons to it," he said. "I really embrace the position I'm in. God put me in this position for a reason. Yeah, things around me have changed, the lifestyle has changed, but the person I am hasn't changed. I'm still the same Deshaun Watson I was in high school."