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Clemson Position Grades: Quarterbacks

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Life is easier with the best player in the country leading your team.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season has come to an end. Our beloved Clemson Tigers are ACC Champions for a second consecutive year and have lost just 2 games in the last two season - not too shabby. It’s a special time to be a Clemson fan; for years we all thought the talent was there, just a lack of execution. Teams stacked with Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington, Vic Beasley Jr., Adam Humphries, Deandre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant...just to name a few; however despite these names, seemed to have come up short for so long.

The irony behind the above paragraph is, I wrote it before the CFP began and we shutout Ohio State, as well as rolled over the Tide in one of the most memorable National Championships of all time. Hearing Ben Boulware’s speech after the conclusion of the 2016 National Championship I went back and read this; he was right. The list of above guys really did pave the way for Clemson to achieve such greatness. Consider what we would have been without the list of above standouts: mediocre at best.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We were plagued with that term C******ing. The phrase for “losing a ‘cupcake game’ when we’re on a path of success.” But now that word has been retired and Clemson is now known as an elite program. Elite programs tend to consistently find themselves in the top rankings of recruiting as well as on the field. After all, it doesn’t matter how many 5-Star recruits a coach can bring in, if they don’t develop them.

So let’s talk about one of those stud recruits ole’ Dabo brought in: Deshaun Watson.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a Heisman worthy, undefeated regular season, a State Championship, an ACC Championship (MVP), Orange Bowl stomping of Oklahoma (who had a 63% chance to win according to ESPN-lol), and was runner up in the National Championship, Clemson; Deshaun Watson had a lot of expectations coming into 2016.

The season started off painful. We looked as though we were going to be the 2015 Ohio State team; loads of talent, not sure what to do with it. We struggled through Auburn and Troy, then picked it up as we worked through our ACC schedule of; Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Boston College. Then should have lost to NC State, AT HOME. Took care of business at Florida State, trampled Syracuse, lost a heart-breaker to Pitt, had a somewhat unimpressive showing against Wake Forest; then finished with a 56-7 State Championship over South Carolina.

After the State Title was complete, they won the ACC title too. Then Watson and company fixed their eyes on Ohio State. Once again the higher ranked underdog; Clemson put their money where their mouth was. 31-0. Afterwards the next phrase we just couldn’t get enough of was “Alabama Defense.” You remember, the defense “they” said was the best Saban has ever had. The defense that was supposed to be “unstoppable.”

Not to disrespect Bama; they played a phenomenal game and honestly, I believe that Championship game was a reflection of Saban’s greatness against Dabo’s growth over the last year. Clemson’s offense and defense adjusted, while Alabama stayed with the same game plan for the majority of the game. Watching Deshaun Watson’s diligence and poise throughout the game proved why he was, for the second year in a row, the best player in College Football.

NCAA Football: CFP National Champions-Clemson Celebration Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Now let’s look at the full season break down the plays, that made these wins (and loss) happen from our quarterback’s perspective:

Deshaun Watson

In Clemson’s most impressive outing of the season, Watson was in Heisman form the entire night. From the first snap, Watson and the rest of the Tigers made it very clear to Louisville who the kings of the ACC were:

Watson’s first touchdown of the game came on a touch-pass to Deon Cain. This is a pass we saw Watson use a lot last year that was very effective. However, during the first few games of the season, Watson’s touch wasn’t near as perfect as we saw in 2015, but boy did it look good on this play:

Later in the game, we were reminded of just how good Watson can be. Notice here, in one of my favorite plays of the season, how he takes the hit he knows is coming, in order to find a wide open Jordan Leggett who makes his way to the endzone.

This play also shows how attentive he is as a game general. He notices that a DL is taking his time running off the field, and rushes the snap, giving Clemson an essential “free play” and man was it a big one:

In what would prove to be just as big a game as Louisville, Watson and company took the road trip to Tallahassee where he blessed us with another beautiful pass to Deon Cain:

IMO: This play wins “Clemson Play of the Year”. In the archives of Clemson history, you’ll hear about The Dive at Doak. This play was set up by Watson taking his time in the pocket, going through his progressions, and finding the open Jordan Leggett (yeah he’s open a lot for some reason):

While the NC State game was one of the more painful games to watch this season, this was one of those plays that shows not only the skill set of Mike Williams, and his ability to fight through contact; but also Deshaun’s ability to throw the ball in tight windows. On this play, Watson passes the ball before Williams actually makes his cut, therefore, the pass has to be in the perfect spot. The placement of the ball was exactly where only Williams could make a play on it, which is exactly what NFL scouts want to see.

Because this play will forever be some of most memorable seconds in sports; here’s the best player in college football, making the most important play of his career...

Nick Schuessler

After Watson came out of the Syracuse game with a shoulder injury, Dabo handed the reigns to Nick Schuessler, the 2nd string senior. Nick quickly took control of the offense just as if he had been playing the entire game.

Nick threw an absolute dime to Cain over two guys, as well as having a collapsing pocket in his face. This was a textbook, seasoned-veteran, pass from Schuessler.

Kelly Bryant

Kelly Bryant is most likely the best 3rd-string quarterback in the country. What other 3rd-stringer would come in and consistently dice defenses up like this? We saw a glimpse of this in the Miami game last year when he ran through the Cane’s defense like he was Mike Vick.

Fast forward to 2016 and the South Carolina State game. Bryant found himself leading the offense during the 3rd quarter where he would break out a 32 yard run. Bryant doesn’t have the best arm in the world, but he is a phenomenal athlete, and an even better runner.

In this play, notice he has the option of pitching the ball out to the right, or keeping it himself. He obviously decides to keep the ball, but take note at the hesitation he uses to set up the play. This is similar to the way Deshaun runs the ball, and honestly how Tajh Boyd used to run as well. They all allow their blockers to pull and actually get involved in the play. One of the most common mistakes that quick DT Quarterbacks make is trying to run too quickly. Not to mention he shed a few tackles on his way to an impressive run.

Here we saw Bryant’s accuracy on display, as he throws a perfect lob pass to Thompson, who also made an impressive catch along the sidelines.

Just to put a little icing on the cake, here’s what made the South Carolina game 56-7...

Another great Kelly Bryant run where he uses great technique in the read option fake hand off, as well as a great job reading the defensive lineman. Then that speed to get to the outside and trot into the end zone doesn’t hurt either.

Honorable Mentions: Tucker Israel & James Barnes

Tucker Israel is the true freshman QB on this loaded Clemson offense, and an exceptional player to be sitting at “4th Sting”. Israel’s stat line was rather thin this year, but he did get to play in two games this season (SC State and Syracuse).

In those two games Israel went 4-4 for 25 yards. No TD’s, INT’s. or Sacks. He also had one rush for two yards.

Another freshman, James Barnes played in one game (SC State), and was 1-1 for 9 yards this season.

Moving Forward

Deshaun Watson had an unbelievable and honestly unrealistic set of expectations set upon him coming into the 2016 season. It seemed as though he was set to take home the Heisman and lead Clemson to another National Championship game. While he came in second for the Heisman Trophy, he put the second ranked Tigers in position to play for a spot in the National Championship, and finished the journey.

Notice that we had 5 quarterbacks play this season: 5. And while it seems almost certain that Deshaun is heading to the NFL this season as well as Nick Schuessler graduating, Clemson has some unanswered questions about who will take over the team at QB:

Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel are both coming back next year, but there’s also some new faces headed our way..

(Shout-out to those comments keeping me honest) Joining the returning group of Bryant and Israel is Zerrick Cooper. I left Cooper off the list on accident when putting together the article. While he was on the roster, he was the only of the group that did not record a stat; and somehow was left off my list of potential DW4 replacements.

The top Quarterback in the ESPNU 2016 class, Hunter Johnson, will be headed to the Southland for next season. At 6-4; 201, Johnson could very well win out the starting spot as a true freshman. Not to mention, he casually won MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game.

Another commit to watch, Chase Brice will be tossing his hat into the ring. Recently, Brice led Grayson High School to a Georgia 7A State Championship.

In addition to Johnson, Clemson recently picked up the commitment of Trevor Lawrence (Top QB in the 2017 class); it appears that Clemson is beginning a new trend of stealing top prospects to compliment WRU.

So, could one of the 5 quarterbacks competing for the spot next year transfer knowing Lawrence is coming in? One thing seems certain, Dabo isn’t the type of coach to run a “2 QB system” like we’ve seen at Ohio State, Auburn, Texas, and Notre Dame.