A few years ago, I wrote an article about the top QBs in Clemson history. In light of the past few years, it deserves an update, so here are my thoughts on the greatest signal callers to ever don the paw.
8. Charlie Whitehurst (’02-’05): Largely known for beating South Carolina four times, Charlie Whitehurst took over after Woody Dantzler. As a sophomore, he threw for 3,561 yards with 21 TDs. That season was his high point as the Clemson Tigers won nine games including memorable wins over FSU (the start of their decline), South Carolina (63-17), and Tennessee (who was ranked #4 entering the Peach Bowl). Whitehurst owned the Clemson record for completions (817) and pass attempts (1,368) until Tajh Boyd passed him on both marks with 901 completions in 1,402 attempts.
A few items barely keep him out of the top five. He won just 7, 6, and 8 games in his freshman, junior, and senior seasons, respectively. His career TD-INT ratio is only 49-46. (His junior season is largely to blame for that as he posted a poor 7-17 TD-INT Ratio). Although beating South Carolina is always fun, we also have the fond memory of just how awful those Gamecock teams really were (one bowl appearance and zero bowl wins in those four seasons).
7. Homer Jordan (’79-’82): The national championship quarterback deserves his due. He played in an era of great defense and hard-nosed rushing attacks, yet was a critical piece to some of the best Clemson football teams. He was the Clemson offensive MVP in the 1981 Orange Bowl that gave the Tigers their program’s National Championship. He left it all out on the field that night. After winning the game, he passed out from heat exhaustion. In 1981, he had the second most passing TDs and the highest passing efficiency in the ACC. His stats don’t tell the story though. His combined record as a junior and senior at Clemson was 21-1-1.
6. Rodney Williams (’85-’88): Coached by Ring of Honor inductee, Danny Ford, Rodney Williams is among the greatest QB in Clemson history. He currently holds the record for the most games won by a quarterback (tied with Boyd at 32), most consecutive passes without interception (122), consecutive games completing a pass (46), most games started by a quarterback (44), and won three straight ACC Championships.
5. Woody Dantzler (’98-01): At the turn of the millennium, Woodrow was one of the most electrifying running quarterbacks in the nation. Part way through his RS sophomore season in 1999 he took over as starting quarterback for Tommy Bowden’s then 1-2 football team and led them to a Peach Bowl.
In his junior campaign, the Tigers finished with 9 wins, but it was his senior season that was most amazing. He tallied 2,360 passing yards and 17 passing touchdowns along with another 1,004 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. With that, he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yard. He set 53 Clemson records and is in the Clemson football Hall of Fame.
4. Mike Eppley (’80-’84): Eppley took over in ’83 following the departure of national champion QB, Homer Jordan. Clemson had been placed on probation prior to the start of 1983 and was unable to officially win the ACC. Nevertheless, Eppley led Clemson to a perfect ACC record in a year in which they finished 9-1-1 and beat a top 10 UNC in Chapel Hill. UNC (along with UVA) had pushed for the additional penalties, making the win all the sweeter and inspiring a fan to make a sign reading “King of the Heel.” In that ’83 season Eppley had the best passing efficiency and the second best completion percentage in the ACC. Over his career he passed for more TDs and fewer INTs than Jordan, but Clemson’s dominance faded in 1984 as the probation began to show on the field and they only finished 7-4. Even then, Eppley led the ACC in passing TDs and total TDs.
3. Steve Fuller (’75-’78): Steve Fuller played under Coach Charlie Pell and started 27 consecutive games for him. He was an All-ACC selection in ’77 and ’78 and was honored as the ACC Player of the Year both years. He is the only Clemson Tiger to do it twice. That year he quarterbacked the Tigers to their ’78 Gator Bowl victory over Ohio State (the Woody Hayes game) and delivered Danny Ford his first win as a head coach.
In his 1978 senior campaign, he finished sixth in Heisman voting accounting for 2,164 yards (1,515 passing and 649 rushing) in a “three yards and a cloud of dust” style offense. The stark difference in playing style makes it near impossible to compare to modern day greats like Whitehurst and Boyd, the latter of which doubled his yardage totals in most seasons.
He was drafted 23rd overall by the Kansas City Chiefs after that season. He also earned a 3.93 GPA and made the Academic All-ACC team three times. His name hangs in Memorial Stadium.
2. Tajh Boyd (’10-13): Boyd holds the Clemson records for career completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. Tajh Boyd also holds the ACC record for total touchdowns and passing touchdowns (breaking Philip Rivers’ passing TD record with one less season as the starter). He compiled a 32-8 record, tying him for the most wins by a QB in school history. Additionally he is one of four Clemson QBs to ever win the Orange Bowl, the others being Billy Hair in the ’50 season, Homer Jordan in the ’81 season, and Deshaun Watson in the ‘15 season.
The knock on Boyd was always his occasional poor play on a big stage. This was most evident in his first two starts against South Carolina and his last matchup with FSU. Still, in his career he beat Virginia Tech, Auburn, LSU, UGA, and Ohio State, hardly pushovers. With that, he led Clemson two an ACC Championship (after a two decade drought) and two Orange Bowl appearances. After the first of those appearances ended in a blowout to WVU, he led Clemson to a 22-4 record in his RS junior and RS senior seasons.
Like Steve Fuller, Boyd revitalized Clemson’s program. When the Tigers finally reached the mountain top winning the title three seasons after Boyd left Clemson, LB Ben Boulware stood on the stage and said past players who got the program to that point are part of the championship. He called out Tajh Boyd specifically - a recognition Boyd surely deserves.
1. Deshaun Watson (‘14-’16)
Is there any doubt? Following the Tajh Boyd era, which ended with an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, the Tigers began 2014 with QB Cole Stoudt at the helm due in part to Watson suffering a collar bone injury prior to the season. In the season opener in Athens, Watson played in a few series. This was his first TD pass as a Tiger.
From that moment, Clemson fans knew the next few years could be special. Watson would be plagued with injuries for most of that 2014 season. He famously played with a torn ACL in the Palmetto Bowl and beat South Carolina to snap their five game winning streak. He’d go 3-0 in his career against the Gamecocks.
Deshaun Watson shook the injury prone label the following year as he led the Tigers to their first undefeated regular season since 1981. He was a finalist for the Heisman, as he posted 5,209 total yards (4,104 passing, 1105 rushing) and 42 TDs (35 passing, 12 rushing). After beating UNC in a high scoring ACC Championship game and Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Clemson played for the National Championship. Clemson would lose that game due to defensive lapses and special team gaffes, but the contest is largely remembered for the 405 yard 4 TD performance by Deshaun Watson.
In his final season as a Tiger, Deshaun Watson tallied 4,593 passing yards and was once again a Heisman finalist. Lamar Jackson won the award, but after what Watson did in three postseason games that came after the vote, there was no doubt about him being the best player in the nation. Following an 11-1 regular season, the Tigers used a five TD performance from Deshaun Watson to get past Virginia Tech, earn a second-consecutive ACC title and make another trip to the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers would win their first ever Fiesta Bowl by beating Ohio State 31-0. In the title game, they got a rematch with Alabama. After quickly falling behind 0-14, the Tigers outplayed the Tide for most of the night and finally took the lead with under five minutes remaining. Despite struggling to move the ball since early in the game, Alabama used a third-and-long completion, a fourth down conversion, a WR-pass, and a QB scramble to score the go-ahead touchdown with 2:07 remaining.
That’s when Deshaun Watson told him teammates to be “legendary,” and they were. The greatest QB and greatest player in Clemson history took the field for the final drive of his illustrious career and cemented his legacy with “The Drive.”