Coming into the season, Clemson’s biggest question (and perhaps its season) hinged on the quarterback position. Now, all (or at least most) questions have been answered, and the Tigers have their quarterback in Kelly Bryant, who led them to an 11-1 regular season record and a third consecutive ACC Championship and College Football Playoff appearance.
With the 2017 season over, we’re going to take a look back at the quarterback position and where it stands following the Tigers’ semifinal exit in the College Football Playoff. STS is here to give their opinion on each of their performances during the regular season and what could be in store for them moving forward.
The biggest question regarding Bryant as the starting quarterback was what the offense would look like, especially in the passing game, and if a more run-oriented offense would be sustainable. Bryant was given a tough initiation in his second start against a tough Auburn defensive line that clearly overwhelmed him at first. After getting briefly knocked out of the game and coming back in, it’s like a flip switched, and he managed to help guide the Tigers to a rough 14-6 victory behind the defense’s six sacks.
Bryant played well within an offense that tailored to his strengths in running the football, as he finished as the team’s third-leading rusher with 665 yards and second in touchdowns with 11. His strength in running the zone read was apparent and was consistent in making the short to intermediate throws asked of him, finishing the year with 2,802 yards, 13 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
Everything culminated in an ACC Championship game against Miami as Bryant led the Tigers to a 38-3 route of the Hurricanes en route to MVP honors. Over the course of the season, Bryant excelled at the short to intermediate passing game, which worked well in combination with Clemson’s great running game, which minimized overall mistakes and limited turnovers.
While the passing numbers trended down due to the increased focus to a run-based offense as many predicted, he kept the offense consistent and dangerous enough to get Clemson to the College Football Playoff for the third straight season.
Of course, it doesn’t mean he didn’t display limitations. There are still a number of times when Bryant sailed his passes on open receivers, and the downfield passing game never seemed to really emerge all season. His deep balls had a lot of air under them, as there were times when receivers would be open down the sidelines and they would have slow down to wait for the ball. Bryant also displayed a tendency of sometimes holding onto the ball too long and bailing the pocket too quickly, though this is was area that he showed signs of improvement in later in the season.
Unfortunately, in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, most of Clemson’s inability to move the football was a combination of poor blocking up front and playcalling that should have focused more on the passing game. The result exposed Bryant’s limitations as a passer and his ability to make pre-snap reads at the line of scrimmage (though much of the offense’s woes in that game can be attributed to a number of factors that don’t all fall with Bryant).
Moving forward, Bryant can only go up from here, and he’ll have the full attention of every defensive coordinator now. The next step for Bryant will be becoming a more consistent downfield passer and prove he can consistently stretch the field and gain better chemistry with his receivers. That also means making consistent pre-snap reads and fixing the mechanical and footwork issues he had in the pocket at times. With a talented receiving and running back corps, Clemson should remain the top team to beat in the ACC and enter 2018 ranked in the five of the AP Poll.
Regular Season Grade: A
Having held on to the backup job for most of the season, Cooper has certainly had his ups and downs. In his time on the field, Cooper went 25-41 for 256 yards and two touchdowns, boasting a quarterback rating of 129.5 while completing 61% of his passes. His biggest time came in the 27-24 loss against Syracuse, when Bryant went down due to his previously sprained ankle and a concussion. Cooper went 10-14 for 88 yards, but didn’t succeed in moving the offense very well.
While he was part of a scoring drive thanks to a long touchdown run by Travis Etienne, he wasn’t helped out by missed field goals from kicker Alex Spence. Given that the offense was unable to see the field much as a result of Syracuse’s extended drives, Cooper was unable to show much more than stalled drives and a couple of missed throws and drops from receivers.
He tended to rely heavily on his first read and seemed to have difficulty reading blitzes, which is one of the first things Syracuse did upon Bryant’s exit from the game.
Overall, he never seemed to put it all together as the season went on, and when he had to come in emergency relief of Bryant against Wake Forest, he was outplayed by Hunter Johnson, who would claim the backup spot upon Bryant’s return.
Zerrick Cooper recently announced his decision to transfer (thankfully before National Signing Day), and will be headed to Jacksonville State.
Regular Season Grade: B-
The vaunted five-star prospect from Tennessee who many media pundits and fans believed would seize the starting job should Bryant falter, Johnson spent most of the season attempting to seize the No.2 spot while continuing to integrate himself into the offense, which was apparently a bigger learning curve than many thought.
Of course, that’s not to say that he didn’t show very good signs.In 2017 mop-up duty, Johnson went 21-27 for 234 yards while tossing two touchdowns and an interception, so there’s certainly no question of talent or ability. In the Tigers’ 61-3 “game” against the Citadel, Johnson threw a beautiful 78-yard bomb to fellow freshman Tee Higgins. When Bryant dropped in the Wake Forest game due to his sprained ankle, Johnson came in relief and orchestrated a brilliant scoring drive capped off with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cannon Smith.
He did have his hiccups moments though. In the pouring rain against Georgia Tech, he failed to haul in some slippery snaps and was unable to keep the clock running to end the game (Dabo Swinney made sure to make his freshman quarterback aware of his mistakes). Since then, he’s been a lot more consistent and has been the first to take the field first when Bryant walks off. The entire 2017 season appears to have been Johnson acclimating to the intricacies of the zone-read and earning the trust of the coaches.
At the end of the season, he appeared much more comfortable in the offense and seemed to display some degree of separation from Cooper. With Trevor Lawrence and Chase Brice on the roster for the spring, it should be an interesting competition moving forward. For now, though, Johnson is in a good spot and shows the intangibles you like to see in a starting quarterback. It’s now time to see whether he can continue to put it all together, especially with all eyes now squarely on Lawrence.
Regular Season Grade: A-
After a third ACC title and College Football Playoff appearance, questions of whether Bryant can lead the Tigers to a potential national title should be out the window. Questions of him not starting in 2018 will emerge, which is always a no-brainer given the quarterback talent behind him. But, Bryant is the guy who helped bring Clemson back to the playoff, and he’ll the first shot to do so again. With Cooper’s departure, all eyes will be on the competition between Johnson and Lawrence, both of whom were rated as the top pocket passers in their recruiting classes.
Johnson demonstrated some very positive signs near the end of the season, especially with the chemistry he seemed to develop with Tee Higgins. Having had a full year in the in the system should only help him get better. For now, it appears as though the job is Bryant’s to lose heading into 2018, but the spring will be an even more interesting story than last year given the talent he has behind him. Not counting Lawrence, Clemson has two quarterbacks it could get back to the playoff with, and that’s never a bad thing.