In our season preview for the quarterback position, STS writer Mark Gordon said:
Some fans find the quarterback search full of excitement and possibilities, where I tend to find it more comparable to an ice cream headache. The good news for Tiger fans (and my stomach) is that Clemson has capable signal callers on the roster, capable of filling in a pair of giant shoes left by departing Senior Tajh Boyd.
At times, it certainly felt like an ice cream headache. After three years with Tajh Boyd never missing a game, there was more drama at the QB position than you could have imagined. In the pre-season, Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team (and after his escapades in Buffalo that move is looking awfully wise). This narrowed the QB competition to early enrollee five-star freshman Deshaun Watson and senior Cole Stoudt. When Watson injured his collarbone, Dabo made the move to name Cole Stoudt the starter.
Stoudt started the first three weeks of the season. In the opening loss to Georgia, he threw for 144 yards and an INT. He bounced back with a 302 yard game against SC State the second week of the season, but only played three series against FSU in the third. In the second series of the FSU game, he missed an open TE near the end zone. The error turned into a missed field goal, two of the many errors that cost Clemson a win in a game that they had so many opportunities to win. Watson entered the game on the fourth drive and played with poise under the bright lights with the nation watching. Despite losing, his performance was good enough to pry the starting job away from Cole Stoudt.
In his first career start, Watson put UNC on their heels, throwing for 435 yards and a school record six TD against Vic Koenning's patented swiss cheese defense. Suddenly, Clemson's offense recaptured the explosiveness they had boasted during the Tajh Boyd era. With Watson at the helm, Clemson blew out UNC and NC State before Louisville came to Death Valley.
Early in the Louisville game, Watson suffered a hand injury, thrusting Cole Stoudt right back into the fire. Cole wasn't able to get anything going downfield, but a virtuoso defensive performance in which Clemson held the Louisville offense to 1/19 on third and fourth downs was enough to earn the victory.
Stoudt would start three more games before Watson's short-lived effort in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Watson injured his knee early in that GT game. Filling in, Stoudt gave the worst performance of his career, throwing three interceptions, two that went for a touchdown, and wasted a great defensive effort.
In Clemson's pre-USCjr warm-up, Stoudt started against Georgia State. The Clemson offense was punch-less, scoring only 28 points against the Panthers. Nick Schuessler and David Olson saw very little time, indicating that even with Stoudt playing his worst football of the season, he was the best Clemson had. No team scored as few points against GSU as Clemson (28). Unfortunately, Clemson was playing their worst football of the season right before the biggest game since the trip to Tallahassee.
Watson was struggling with a torn ACL, an injury unbeknownst to the fans, media, or opposing coaches (thought to be a sprain and bone bruise), and it was unclear if he would start. Few thought Clemson could win without him. Then, when Clemson needed him most, Deshaun Watson delivered a performance on par with Willis Reed or Curt Schilling, playing on a torn ACL, and ripping up South Carolina's horrendous defense for 35 points. After the win, it was announced that his knee injury was actually a torn ACL. Although there was talk about him playing in the bowl game, that was - fortunately - not the direction he and the coaches decided to go. Cole Stoudt would get one last start.
For the season, Cole Stoudt had only 77 completions beyond the line of scrimmage compared to 114 behind the line of scrimmage. Given his play throughout the season, but especially against Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and South Carolina (1/2 with an INT in relief duty), it was hard to objectively expect Clemson's offense to score enough to beat anyone of note. It was also during this time that Chad Morris, the offensive coordinator and QB coach, accepted the position of head coach at SMU. Not only was Clemson going to be without their star QB for their bowl game, but also their OC and QB coach. Dabo quickly announced his pre-arranged plan to have Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott replace Chad Morris as new co-offensive coordinators. Though we love the vast majority of the football staff at Clemson, we were left wondering why they didn't even interview hot external candidates like Lincoln Riley, Kurt Roper, Bill Legg, etc. Shortly thereafter the rumors were confirmed that former Clemson QB Brandon Streeter would leave his position as the Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach at Richmond to become the new QB Coach and Recruiting Coordinator at Clemson.
Of course, all the change came to head in the Russell Athletic Bowl in the most unpredictable way. On the first play-call of Tony Elliott's career, Cole Stoudt threw a screen pass to Artavis Scott that went for a 65-yrd TD. In Brandon Streeter's first game as Clemson's QB coach we saw Cole Stoudt break free of serious struggles and complete 15 passes beyond the line of scrimmage (and 11 behind the line of scrimmage). Amazingly, he had a completion percentage of 68% on passes beyond the line of scrimmage in the game, better than his completion percentage overall coming in. Of course, the bowl win was Stoudt's final game at Clemson, and he was able to amend his legacy and leave on a high note.
Looking back at the job QB coach and OC Chad Morris did this season makes for an interesting lessen on the importance of personnel. Previously lauded as the best coordinator in the country, Morris's offense was completely hapless at times. A 16-6 win over Syracuse and the 6-28 loss to GT come to mind. Surely, he didn't forget how to coach in a year's time, but without the type of quarterback he needed for his system, he was unable to make the adjustments necessary to get the offense functioning at a high level. Surely losing Chad Morris is a blow to any coaching staff, but the great job the new staff did in the Russell Athletic Bowl certainly quelled most hesitation or worry about coaching moves.
We'll never know how much Cole Stoudt's final game turn around had to do with his recovery from a shoulder injury vs. Brandon Streeter's coaching, but the performance clearly bodes well for the future with Streeter.
Reinforcements arrive at QB for next season with Tucker Israel and Kelly Bryant arriving. Although Stoudt ended on a very high-note, overall the QB position should be in better position next season. With Watson healthy (fingers crossed) and starting from the get-go, we'll be better at the top. Tucker Israel is a 247 three-star QB from Florida who received offers from Louisville and Florida and even as a freshman, should provide better depth than what Clemson had this past season. Kelly Bryant also joins in the same class and is another three-star QB with major offers (UF and GT). Another year of experience for Schuessler, hopefully the staff will have more confidence in him than they displayed this year and Bryant can redshirt.
One thing many will hope to see is fewer QB designed run plays. After Watson suffered injuries to his collar bone, hand, and knee this year, we'll hope the new co-OC duo is a bit more cautious with his health. Fortunately, we hear he is "beasting" rehab and should be in good shape for next season.
Beasting this rehab! #GodSpeed— Deshaun Watson (@ShaunWatson4) January 9, 2015
Godspeed Deshaun! We will follow you to the promise land.