Last spring, most of the uncertainty for the Tigers was on the defensive side of the football, having lost multiple players to the NFL, while talk about the offense was the opportunity to be legendary. Well, the defense turned out to be pretty good, and the offense, while not legendary, was one of the best in the nation and ended the run to a national championship by shredding the vaunted Alabama defense for 31 first downs and 511 total yards. With a national championship game record 420 yards passing (breaking his own record of 407 yards in the previous year’s game), Deshaun Watson cemented his position as the greatest quarterback in Clemson history.
This year the talk is that the defense will be one of the best in the nation, with players like Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell returning on a defensive line that will surely give opposing offenses fits. The linebacker group is as deep and talented as they have been in a long time. The secondary has quite a collection of talented and hardworking players. The offense is where most of the questions lie for the 2017 season, and none are bigger than the question of who will replace Watson as he heads to the NFL.
The short answer to that question is that we really don’t know at this point, and it may not be answered until several games into the season, as it was in 2014 when Watson showed his immense talent as a freshman. Head coach Dabo Swinney has said that if the Tigers played today, junior Kelly Bryant would get the start, but it is not difficult to get the message that Swinney is not convinced that Bryant is the guy to guide the Tiger offense through the season. If so, we would be hearing much more definitive statements like we used to hear about Watson. That might leave many fans worried about what will happen with the offense in the fall. Don’t worry. What? Surely uncertainty and inexperience at the quarterback position means nothing but trouble, right? The offense will certainly have its tough moments, but there are several positives that will keep the Tiger offense eating away at opposing defenses.
The number one positive, and this one is huge, is an offensive line that is talented and experienced. The battle for starting center will continue into fall practice, but that will get settled. The second positive, also huge when you have an inexperienced quarterback, is a solid stable of running backs. Look for the Tigers to be leaning on the run game this fall, especially early on in the season. It won’t be like the Option/Power-I days of Danny Ford, but you’ll see a lot more running than we have become accustomed to in recent years. There’s nothing like a good running game to help a quarterback move along in his development cycle. The Tiger wide receiver corps is as solid as they have ever been, and that too will help a young quarterback. Clemson’s offensive coaches are some of the best, and they will play to the team’s strengths.
So, where does that leave the quarterback situation? Bryant, redshirt sophomore Tucker Israel, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper, and freshman Hunter Johnson participated in spring practice. Four star recruit Chase Brice will arrive in the fall. There is plenty of talent in this bunch, but the history of football is rife with talented quarterbacks who couldn’t put everything together at the game’s most difficult position. Playing against the nation’s best defenses tends to magnify the smallest of mistakes. One key to developing quarterbacks is to be able to put them in tough situations while maintaining the ability to win games. With a great defense and a good running game, the Tigers will be able to do quarterback development and win games while doing so.
Bryant is the most experienced player of the group and is a terrific runner, noticeably better than Watson, who wasn’t exactly shabby at it. He has that difficult-to-coach knack for making people miss in the open field. Don’t be too surprised if you see the Tiger offense run a triple option occasionally. Done right against an undisciplined defense, the triple option is deadly and Bryant has the skills to give a defense fits in an option package. While his passing game has improved, Bryant is still lacking in that area. Unfortunately he injured his throwing hand at the beginning of the spring game, so it’s difficult to draw too firm a conclusion about his performance, but it was not a notable day passing for him.
Of the quarterbacks, Tucker Israel had quite a day. He did have the benefit of the better offensive line for the Orange team, but he made good decisions and threw the ball well, going 13 of 19 with a touchdown and no interceptions. He might not have all of the physical skills of the other players, but Tiger fans can rest easy knowing that the offense has a guy that can come in and play a solid game. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens showed what you can do with a great defense, even if you have an average quarterback, and Israel is much better than average.
The remaining two guys have the highest ceilings but they have some more development to do in the mental aspects of the game. Cooper and Johnson both throw the ball very well. Both are also pretty good when they pull the ball down and take off. Having an extra year in the system, Cooper is farther along the learning curve and played reasonably well in the spring game, but overthrew a receiver and it resulted in a pick. He nearly threw another pick. My read on him is that he understands the playbook pretty well, and just needs some time at game speed to work on his decision making and execution. Being chased in a quarterbacks-live situation by guys like Lawrence and Ferrell has a way of showing you what your weaknesses are. More of that will help him, and he strikes me as a guy who will work hard to address those weaknesses.
Johnson is brimming with potential. Being on the White team, like Cooper, he spent too much time running for his life and dealing with bad snaps, and didn’t have the best day statistically. It’s obvious (and understandable, having just arrived) that he is well behind the others on the playbook learning curve. Overall he had the worst statistical day of the group. But I’ll go on record right now and tell you this: this young man is going to be shredding defenses with a vengeance in the near future. His 24-yard touchdown throw to Diondre Overton was a thing of beauty. That is not a very easy throw to make, and he threw it off his back foot, but it was perfectly placed. When he gets a firm grasp on the playbook and a good offensive line in front of him, defensive coordinators are going to be staying up very late trying to figure out how to stop him.
So, as we enter the anticipatory days of summer, the quarterback situation is still unsettled, and that would normally be a big cause of concern, but the Tiger offense has a lot of talent and experience that will enable the coaches to develop the quarterbacks without having to throw the weight of carrying the offense on their shoulders. The defense, an experienced offensive line, the customary batch of top-tier receivers, and a solid running game will give the coaches time to get the quarterback situation sorted out. It will probably take a few games to get it settled, but the Tigers have excellent athletes competing for the starting job and one of them will make a clear case to be the starter. By the end of the season, the Tiger offense will be humming along, and the chase for another national championship will be in full swing.