In two short years, Deshaun Watson left his mark as arguably one of the program’s greatest players in history, taking the Tigers to the College Football Playoff in consecutive seasons and bringing the school its second national championship. With Watson ow an NFL quarterback for the Houston Texans, the Tigers will enter 2017 with a new signal caller.
Maintaining a slew of young and talented skill players alongside an experienced offensive line entering 2017, Clemson’s quarterback play will be a crucial factor in determining whether the Tigers find themselves back in the College Football Playoff for a third straight season.
Heading into the offseason, the competition has centered on a three-way battle between incumbent junior Kelly Bryant, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper, and true freshman Hunter Johnson.
Thus far, Bryant has held the inside track for the starting position, having been listed as the No.1 quarterback since the start of spring practice and serving as backup for the past two seasons.
By now, everyone is well aware of what Bryant’s 6’3, 215-pound frame and athletic ability would bring to Clemson’s offense. Bryant’s size and speed would make him a threat to take it the distance should he break into the open field, as Miami learned the hard way back in 2015, while also making Clemson even more dangerous in the red zone given Bryants’ ability in short yardage situations.
The biggest questions surrounding Bryant is his ability in the downfield passing game. Fans and the media at large still don’t have a good grasp as to how polished Bryant has gotten in this area. While he didn’t inspire confidence in the spring game by going just 4-13, he played with a bum hamstring and an injured finger on his throwing hand. For now, the jury is still out on this facet of his game, but if he is able to make defenses respect his passing, Clemson’s offense can remain explosive enough to give teams plenty of headaches.
On the other side of the equation, should Bryant falter or fail to create further separation, Clemson has plenty of upside and talent with its remaining two competitors in Cooper and Johnson. While not the dynamic running threat that Bryant is, Cooper is mobile and athletic enough to pick up yards on the ground while possessing the requisite arm strength to keep Clemson’s offense running in a similar fashion to the way it did under Watson. Once rated as the fourth-best prospect in Georgia and the ninth-best quarterback by ESPN, the Jonesboro native has shown potential both in and outside of the pocket, even completing 11 of his 18 passes in the spring game.
Cooper certainly has the tools necessary to be a capable starting quarterback given continued reps and opportunities. However, Cooper still lacks the necessary experience with the offense, and he has been unable to separate himself from Johnson, who just arrived on campus on January. There is a lot to like about Cooper’s skill set, and while a lot of eyes have been on Johnson, the redshirt freshman should not be counted out by any means.
Johnson has arguably the highest ceiling of the three quarterbacks heading into 2017, possessing the best arm of the group while providing the necessary mobility to keep defenses honest. He delivered a beautiful touchdown pass in the spring game to Diondre Overton after recognizing the receiver was in single coverage.
Despite being listed as a pro-style quarterback, Johnson has shown himself to be athletic outside of the pocket, a necessity for Clemson’s spread offense to function effectively.
The fact that Johnson is tied with Cooper for the No. 2 role speaks to how much of a factor Johnson still is. Given his progress, it’s very possible he could start the season as the primary backup option and even push for the starting spot should Bryant be unable to gain further separation.
Having only enrolled in January, Johnson’s biggest obstacle has been in taking command of the playbook, an area that both Bryant and even Cooper have the edge in, given the latter’s work during his redshirt year. While enrolling early has given Johnson a head start in the learning process, it appears unlikely that he’ll snatch the starting spot by opening day against Kent State. However, earning the backup role is still within reach, and watching the battle unfold between him and Cooper is probably the biggest roster development to keep an eye on.
Tucker Israel & Chase Brice
A redshirt sophomore, Tucker Israel posted good numbers in the spring game, but was not even listed on the summer depth chart. Likely destined to be a perennial backup, Israel’s lack of mobility and size keep him from rising much higher compared to the rest of his position group. Chase Brice was the second quarterback the Tigers signed. While Brice is a nice prospect for the Tigers moving forward, the Loganville product is destined for a redshirt given the trio of quarterbacks ahead of him.
For now, only time will tell as to which quarterback will separate himself from the pack. Bryant is the most “game-ready” of the three at the moment, having been the one most immersed in the offense. However, as time passes, either Cooper or Johnson could take advantage of any opportunity, as they become more comfortable running the offense and Bryant is unable to maintain separation. After two years of development behind the best quarterback in college football, it comes time for Bryant to put it all together on the field.
With such a contested battle, people should not rule out the possibility of a two-quarterback system taking place early on. While such a system has its pros and cons, especially when it comes to having a team’s quarterback settling into a rhythm, it changes the entire dynamic of what a team’s offense can accomplish.
At the end of the day, despite which quarterback winds up separating themselves from the pack, each has the requisite potential talent and supporting cast to keep Clemson in national championship contention. With an early game slate that includes Auburn and Louisville, this group’s mettle will be tested early.