This time last year the biggest question surrounding Clemson football was how the Tigers would replace Deshaun Watson, the most accomplished quarterback in school history. As noted in our 2017 participation review for the position, Watson played about 88% of the snaps in 2015 and 2016, so there wasn’t a lot of experience among the quarterbacks coming into the 2017 season. Kelly Bryant had a bit of game experience and had shown flashes of his explosiveness as a runner, but there were big unanswered questions about his passing abilities and how the team would respond to him as a leader. Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and incoming 5-star recruit Hunter Johnson were also vying to lead the Tiger offense.
A year later, we know that Bryant clearly won the battle and led the Tigers to their third straight College Football playoff appearance, facing Alabama again, this time in the semifinal round. Bryant had a very good season statistically speaking, leading the ACC with a 65.8% completion percentage. His numbers were quite respectable, but Watson so elevated the expectations for the position that calls for other quarterbacks with better passing skills, especially Johnson, were heard all season. And with an overall poor performance by the Tigers in the playoff game against Alabama, notably the offensive line, the questions about the quarterback position in 2018 have only increased. Clemson is, however, in an enviable state at the position. The top rated pocket passer recruits in the country the last two years are on the roster, and Bryant is returning. Many teams would love to have this sort of “problem” at quarterback.
Israel and Cooper saw the writing on the wall and decided to transfer out of the program. I was impressed with Israel’s performance in last year’s spring game, but he battled an illness all year and was never a factor last season. Cooper got a fair amount of playing time in the Syracuse game after Bryant was knocked out, but couldn’t lead the Tigers to victory. By the end of the season, it appeared that Johnson had come long far enough in grasping the mental aspects of the Tiger offense to supplant Cooper as Bryant’s backup.
This year Bryant and Johnson return, along with redshirt freshman and former 4-star recruit Chase Brice, whom the coaches have praised as a talented and smart player. Most of the talk, however, has understandably been about Trevor Lawrence, the number one recruit in the country regardless of position. I have even heard people describe him as the second coming of Peyton Manning. Well, that’s quite a comparison to make of a young man who hasn’t yet played a single down in a college uniform, but watch some of his high school film and you’ll begin to see why some think so highly of him. He checks off the obvious physical attributes, being 6-6 and 210 pounds, and he can clearly make all of the required throws, displaying both accuracy and arm strength. Coach Swinney has said that from a physical standpoint, he is noticeably ahead of where Watson was when he arrived at Clemson.
But, as I tell my young players, football is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. And no position has the mental demands that quarterback does. Lawrence is an early enrollee, so he is on campus and learning the offensive system, and that bodes well for his ability to compete for the starting job this fall. How much playing time he gets this year will be almost exclusively decided by how well he can wrap his mind around the offensive scheme and execute it. He can make all of the throws, but can he make the right ones? Can he process the game at the increased pace he will see at the college level? Can he get the offense into the right play based on what he sees the defense doing prior to the snap? These are the kinds of things that Watson excelled at. These are the kinds of things that a Clemson quarterback will have to do to lead the Tigers to another championship.
It will be very interesting to see how things shake out this year. Bryant’s knowledge of the system and experience will make it hard for the others to supplant him prior to the season. Coaches like knowing how a player will react in game situations, and Bryant is a very comfortable choice in that regard. Johnson has a year of experience, and has played well in the limited snaps he has received. Brice and Lawrence are unknowns, neither having yet played a down in a Tiger uniform.
A safe prediction is that Bryant will enter the season as the starter and Johnson will be the backup. But there is a lot of talent at the position, and by the end of the year things could look quite different. Or one of the players could have a spectacular spring and summer and take the starting job from Bryant before the season even starts. Whatever happens, the future looks bright for the Tigers at the game’s most important position.