It’s that time of year again: spring practice. That’s right, the defending national champions are set to start anew, with competition brewing at every position. This is especially the case at quarterback, as Clemson must choose an heir for the departed Deshaun Watson, who is now seeking greener pastures at the next level. If head coach Dabo Swinney and his coaching have proven anything during his tenure, it’s that the Tigers has proven that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. To that end, they’ve stocked up on some pretty decent quarterback talent in preparation for a likely Watson departure. Today, we’ll be taking a look at how the depth shapes up heading into spring practice and who people can expect the main contenders to be. With that said, here’s a look at our exclusive preview of Clemson quarterbacks heading into spring practice:
Current depth chart: James Barnes, Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper, Tucker Israel, Hunter Johnson
James Barnes (R-So., 5’10, 185 lbs)
Originally a walk on, Barnes should be considered a non-factor. He’ll be one of the main clipboard sideline holders for the Tigers. Barring a massive rash of injuries, the most he’ll see real game action is against teams like South Carolina State, where he completed a nine-yard pass.
Kelly Bryant (Jr. 6’3, 215 lbs)
With the departure of Watson and Nick Schuessler, Bryant, a junior, is going to get the first crack on the practice field with the first-team offense. There is no doubting the former Wren product’s physical gifts. Listed at around 6-3, 215, Bryant has the athleticism and mobility to thrive in this offense. However, where doubts arrive is his ability in the passing game.
2016 was thought to be a year where, in what was in all likelihood to be Watson’s last year, Bryant would solidify his grasp over the No. 2 spot. But the fact that Schussler held the position all year might be a cause for concern, especially in a year where many were hoping that 2016 would be a bigger opportunity for Kelly to get more reps, though that wasn’t the case. He flashed what his athleticism could bring to the position against Miami during the 2015 season, when he burned their secondary for two long touchdown runs.
It was last season that concerns arose about his potential status as a starter come 2017. During blowout games against South Carolina State, Boston College, Syracuse, and South Carolina last season, Bryant went a combined 6-9 for 48 yards and a touchdown to go along with a rushing touchdown. In each of these games, he always came on late AFTER Schuessler, who, by comparison, went 23-33 for 334 yards and threw for three touchdowns and an interception. Seeing Bryant make further progressions in the passing game during the spring will go a long way towards whether he can hold off both Cooper and Johnson, who both remain relative unknowns. Should it suddenly boil down to a Cooper-Johnson battle, don’t be surprised if Bryant goes the route of Braxton Miller or Terrelle Pryor and undergoes a position change, as his athleticism is his strongest trait that needs to be taken advantage of. (Maybe to safety?)
Zerrick Cooper (R-Fr., 6’3, 205 lbs)
Coming off of a redshirt year, the Jonesboro, Georgia native was known rated as a dual-threat, though he is more in line as a pocket passer. Listed at 6’3, 205 pounds, Cooper is actually quite close in size to Bryant and actually seen as the better passing option between the two. A highly sought four-star quarterback in the 2016 class, Cooper slid under the radar a little on the recruiting trail after an ACL injury prior to his junior year. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t mobile, as he did show himself adept at buying time in and out of the pocket and taking off downfield.
Like Watson, Cooper has a knack for keeping his eyes downfield and is often looking to throw the ball before taking off. He’s also quite underrated from an athletic standpoint, as he doesn’t have issues escaping the pocket, and is perhaps the most polished of the three quarterbacks in that regard.
The question becomes just how much of a factor he can be and how he looks running the offense. There were some slight questions surrounding his arm strength, though coaches have raved about both his ‘special arm’ and his athletic ability dating back to last March. Even as a redshirt, Cooper would often be dressed out on the sidelines (he wore No.6 with a white headband). There’s no doubt he’s gotten the attention of the coaches, and, depending on how much of a push Johnson makes, Cooper could be very much be considered the favorite to emerge as the starter down the line.
It is also worth noting that during bowl practice there was some noise about how much Cooper has progressed. Couple that with a lot of sources, friends of family, etc talking about Cooper’s ability this year and he may surprise people this spring.
Tucker Israel (R-So., 5’10, 180 lbs)
Signed in the same class as Bryant, Israel is in the mold of a pocket passer. While holding some pretty decent high school passing records and breaking some of Tim Tebow’s old ones in the process, Israel should be considered the fourth option in the race barring some sort of resurgence. He redshirted due to an ankle injury he sustained back in 2015 during spring practice.
Unfortunately, at 5’10, Israel does not have the size to really get into the thick of the competition. Not everyone can break through to be a Russell Wilson or a Drew Brees, and we don’t really foresee that happening for Israel, especially with more talented passers like Johnson in the mix. With an influx of passers set to arrive on Clemson in the foreseeable future, Israel shouldn’t expect any real time on the field. Unless he is content with being the perpetual fourth quarterback on the roster, a transfer would be the only route for him to take if he actually wants an opportunity to play. It’s not so much a question of him being a bad quarterback, but the amount of talent at the position is simply too much.
Hunter Johnson (Fr., 6’4, 215 lbs)
Many folks often gets scared by the pro-style label recruiting services often attach to these quarterbacks, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not mobile or can’t play in Clemson’s offense. Such is especially the case with Johnson, who is labeled as the top pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class.
A highly touted five-star who enrolled early in January surrounded by a ton of hype and upside, the Brownsburg, Indiana, native comes onto campus with a lot of excitement. Listed at 6’4, 201 pounds, Johnson has plenty of size for the position and displays the arm strength needed to stretch the field and the frame to put on more weight over time.
While the pro-style label might concern some fans and analysts who question his fit in Clemson’s offense, it’s easy to see on film that he is far from being a statue in the pocket, showing some pretty good mobility outside of the pocket, rushing for 525 yards and three touchdowns in addition to throwing for 2,233 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior. Playing in a wide-open offense, he’s taken a number of snaps from shotgun, and watching some of his footage from high school, it’s easy to envision him running the Tigers’ spread offense. Boasting a strong track background, he is very underrated from an athletic standpoint, and it’s clear to see that mobility isn’t much of a weakness for Johnson.
As with any freshman quarterback, the question becomes how quickly it takes for him to pick up enough of the offense in comparison to both Bryant and Cooper, as well as adjusting to the overall speed of the college game. Enrolling early in January bodes well for Johnson to become more than a darkhorse factor at the position, and him getting to play in the spring game will be an invaluable opportunity to give fans a snapshot of what they could be looking for come September.
Its quite an interesting time right now for the position, which has to replace arguably its best quarterback in school history. The Tigers have usually had a (mostly) seamless transition between its departing quarterbacks. From Tajh Boyd to Stoudt to Watson, Clemson hasn’t had quite an intriguing battle at the position like this in quite some time.Huge credit should go to the coaching staff, who crushed it on the recruiting trail to have viable competition at the quarterback position in lieu of Watson’s departure. It’s easy to say Bryant has an edge given his place and experience in the offense for two years, though his inability to grasp the No. 2 spot behind Watson as many hoped leaves quite an opening for either Cooper or Johnson, who both have more upside and potential as more well-rounded passers. A lot can happen in the spring, but this is easily the position that will be most crucial in whether Clemson continues its reign as a College Football Playoff contender.
As the Tigers enter spring practice, all eyes should be on Bryant, Cooper, and Johnson, who are the ones most likely to win the starting position. Cooper and Johnson are especially important, as how quickly they integrate into the offense could mean that Bryant could find himself on the outside looking in.