Inconsistent quarterback play resulting from unproven youth and inconsistent veterans on the roster made the 2014 season a roller-coaster ride of offensive production. As the coaching staff brought freshman phenom Deshaun Watson along slowly in the season's opening weeks, Cole Stoudt proved somewhat serviceable, but Watson's superior athletic ability, arm strength, and, most impressively considering his youth, decision-making ability under pressure, made him not only the future but the present as well. With Watson at the helm, the Tiger offense was as explosive as any in the nation. But injuries limited Watson's playing time and forced Stoudt back into action.
Watson returned for the season finale to orchestrate the first of what Tiger fans hope will be many memorable moments in Tigertown. But can he stay on the field? Will senior and former walk-on backup Nick Schuessler be forced into action in 2015 as Stoudt was in 2014? Will the results be similarly average and predictable? Or will Watson prove the "injury-prone" label wrong, log the majority of snaps, and direct an offensive unit stacked with skilled talent to record heights? Will 2015 be a rerun of 2014, or will the talent rise to the top and remain there for the entire year? The overall success or failure of Clemson's 2015 season largely hinges on the answers to these questions.
Despite riding out into the proverbial sunset with a superb final performance against Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the departure of Cole Stoudt represents addition-by-subtraction for the 2015 Tiger gridders. Deshaun Watson is now the undisputed leader of the Clemson offense, and given his incredible performance in extended (though abbreviated) action last year, a healthy Watson should mean gaudy offensive numbers for the Tigers. With no other departures of note, the fate of Clemson's quarterback position this season centers on Watson's health and continued progression. If Nick Schuessler is forced into significant action, it means new arrivals have not progressed enough to instill the coaches' confidence, and the ceiling for the Tigers' offensive production and season accomplishments descends drastically.
As "the man" heading into this year, Deshaun Watson needs simply to continue doing what he's done since he arrived on campus last spring. A true student of the game with an uncommon humility and work ethic, Watson has earned his teammates respect on and off the field. He simply needs to stay healthy, and his five-star intangibles will combine with his five-star measurables to produce truly special things for those clad in orange and white. If Watson is unable to remain on the field, the only returning player at the position is junior Nick Schuessler. By all accounts, Schuessler did everything expected of him and then some during the spring when Watson sat out recovering from knee surgery. But has the former walk-on improved enough to be a reliable option against live bullets this fall? That stats in limited action last season don't inspire much confidence. Given Stoudt's limitations and struggles, the very dearth of stats for Schuessler speaks volumes about the coaches lack of confidence in him last season. Does that lack of confidence persist, or has he truly grown into at least a serviceable replacement should Watson go down? How much he plays during whatever "garbage time" the Tigers accrue in their early-season games could be a clear indication of the coaches plans for him and the quarterback position should Watson sustain injuries that cost him considerable time.
Youth will be served in Quarterback Coach Brandon Streeter's first year in his new position with his alma mater. Schuessler is the room's only senior; Watson is but a sophomore, and the other two bodies on the roster, Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel, are true freshmen who only just arrived in January 2015. While they gained invaluable experience, coaching, and physical training by enrolling early, they are anything but polished quarterbacks ready to assume meaningful snaps directing the Tiger offense. Each brings the dual-threat ability necessitated by the Clemson offense, with Bryant being the more athletic run threat, while Israel stands out as the more developed passer at this stage.
Bryant comes to Clemson from nearby Wren High School in Anderson, SC, where he excelled to the tune of 231-368 passing for 3,579 yards and 41 touchdowns along with 720 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing on 128 carries, earning him a consensus 3-star recruiting ranking, and recognition as a finalist for South Carolina's Mr. Football Award, Greenville County's Player of the Year, S.C. Football Coaches Association Player of the Year, and a Shrine Bowl invitation. Bryant's athleticism and arm strength give him a very high ceiling, but his progress will depend on his mental growth and technical development at the college level. All signs point to steady improvement in both regards, but will it be enough to win football games against top-notch power-five competition if pressed into action this fall? That remains to be seen.
Tucker Israel comes to Clemson from Lake Nona High School in Orlando, FL. He excelled as a three-year starter in a wide open, pass-first high school system that enabled him to break nearly all of the state's major passing records, including 162 career passing touchdowns and 15,034 career passing yards. His senior season saw him compile 4,446 yards and 56 touchdowns through the air, which earned him a three-star recruiting ranking, including the #12 dual-threat QB by ESPN, as well as second-team Max-Preps All-American and honorable mention Parade All-American honors. As an accomplished passer and better-than-average runner (222 carries for 1,314 yards and 18 touchdowns career) in high school, is Israel a true threat to rival Bryant as Watson's successor, or is he destined to serve in the serviceable backup role held by the likes of Nick Schuessler and Cole Stoudt before him? Again, only time will tell.
Bryant got the majority of snaps behind Watson and Schuessler in fall camp due to the broken foot Israel sustained on the first day of camp. Israel should return to full football activities by the second week of the season, however, and the coaches will likely try to work both he and Bryant as much as possible to determine which, if either, will redshirt and which will play and potentially displace Schuessler as Watson's backup.
If Deshaun Watson stays healthy in 2015, many if not most Clemson quarterback records could fall by season's end, and the offense as a whole could put up unprecedented numbers en route to what could be a special season. But Clemson is just one injury away from having to rely on either an inexperienced junior and former walk-on, or an even more inexperienced true freshman, to direct the offense. If Watson misses time early in the season, the inexperience could cost the Tigers a game or two against stiff competition in late September and early October. But if Watson sustains an injury later in the year, allowing Schuessler, Bryant and/or Israel meaningful snaps, the Tigers may have the overall talent and depth to maintain at least the near-elite status of the previous four seasons (10+ wins, major bowl wins over marquee programs). Watson's presence makes this position the greatest potential strength of the 2015 team. But the youth and inexperience behind him also renders the position the greatest potential pitfall to the Tigers' aspirations to glory.
Prevails over this:
Then the 2015 Clemson Tigers should find themselves hoisting this:
With a better-than-fighting chance at claiming THE OCULUS!