College football is finally right around the corner. With football practice well underway, it’s time to officially breakdown where Clemson stands at the quarterback position. At the beginning of January, Clemson had a whopping six scholarship quarterbacks in its meeting room. The room has gotten a lot smaller since then, with three of those quarterbacks (Hunter Johnson, Zerrick Cooper, Tucker Israel) opting to transfer elsewhere given the return of 12-2 starter Kelly Bryant and highly touted five-star Trevor Lawrence. Cooper opted to go to Jacksonville State, while Johnson chose Northwestern as his school of choice.
Heading into the fall, Clemson will have four primary quarterbacks on its 2018 roster. This group is arguably the deepest the Tigers have been at the position in history, which speaks to the fantastic recruiting done by the staff and in quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter for their continued development. As we’ve seen with other teams across college football, it’s never a bad thing to have more than one quarterback capable of winning (see: Ohio State Buckeyes in 2014). That being said, here’s a look at the signal callers Clemson will have on its roster heading into the 2018 season.
Thought to be a capable yet questionable quarterback entering 2017 due to his lack of field time in the previous two seasons behind Watson, Bryant emerged as one of the team’s biggest leaders. Behind a run-based offense that capitalized on his athletic ability while placing emphasis on the short passing game, Bryant put together a 12-2 record as a starter. With his lone regular season loss coming in a 27-24 game against Syracuse where he played with a sprained ankle before exiting with a concussion at the end of the first half, Bryant more than silenced doubts on his ability to lead the offense. He finished the 2017 season throwing for 2,802 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions while rushing for 665 yards and 11 touchdowns.
While Bryant was the most consistent in short to intermediate throws, the passing game did take a step back, as his mechanics were often too inconsistent at times, especially across the middle of the field. Bryant’s downfield passing game has been a subject of debate, as the offense could not consistently stretch defenses vertically. This was emphasized against Alabama, where the Tigers failed to get into any kind of rhythm in the downfield passing game. Through last season, he also displayed a tendency to either place too much air under his deep passes. Yet, according to Pro Football Focus, Bryant was rated as the ACC’s best downfield passer. So, while Bryant’s ability to push the ball downfield consistently remains to be seen, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable.
Clemson QB Kelly Bryant saw the ACC's highest passer rating on deep passes this season. pic.twitter.com/OiEeo2ACk1— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 12, 2018
Heading into camp, Bryant is still listed as the starter, but the question certainly remains as to whether he can hold off Lawrence all year. Last year’s backups in Cooper and Johnson are both gone, as neither were able to really challenge Bryant’s status. Out of the quarterbacks on Clemson’s roster, Bryant is the most athletic and has demonstrated the most command of the offense going into his fourth year. Now, with Lawrence continually impressing in practice, Bryant will be challenged in taking that next step, particularly in the downfield passing game.
One important thing to consider were defensive end Clelin Ferrell’s words at ACC Media Days.
As of right now, Bryant is the starter, and it’s clear that he has the support of the team. Lawrence has to not only perform on the field, but also demonstrate unquestioned command over the team. For the foreseeable future, it’s Bryant’s job to lose.
Now, here’s the section that many of you probably read this article for. What is there to say about Lawrence that hasn’t been said? Towering at 6’6 with a cannon arm, underrated mobility, and long flowing locks that make Thor envious, Lawrence certainly looks the part. Fans were teased in the spring game with bombs to Tee Higgins and continual praise of his performance from Dabo Swinney himself. He moves well in and out of the pocket and has demonstrated an ability to make all of the throws. Many fans and media members like are already predicting Lawrence to either claim the job opening day or sometime within the first month or two of the season.
It’s easy to see where the hype come from when you watch film on the guy. He already looks as though he plays with the poise of a veteran quarterback. His mobility in and out of the pocket is clear, and he appears to be integrating into the offense seamlessly quite well. There’s no doubting he’s only going to get better as he gains command over the offense. That being said, it’s important to note that, no matter the pedigree, he is still a freshman yet to play a snap against a college defense. Even Watson had to take the field and thread a pass between two athletic Georgia Bulldog defensive backs first before people were completely convinced. This time last season, many were clamoring for Johnson to eclipse Bryant as a starter. While the narrative is different given that Lawrence is definitely more ready than Johnson was at this point last year, we must remember that freshman quarterbacks are a bit different compared to other positions on the field.
There’s no questioning Lawrence has all of the physical tools, but where is he mentally? How will he respond to pressure? How would Lawrence respond in a harsh environment like College Station? These are not slights against Lawrence or his ability to start over an established veteran, which could very well happen, especially if Bryant can’t push the ball downfield. They are merely the questions that need to be answered with Lawrence at the helm. His confidence in his arm could also mean an increased chance for turnovers. For as much as we loved Watson, he had a penchant for turnovers at times in a more pass-heavy offense (see: 2016 games vs. Louisville and Pittsburgh). Clemson valued its decrease in turnovers last season, and Bryant demonstrated that he wouldn’t contribute to Clemson’s loss because of them.
There’s no doubting that Lawrence is going to demonstrate why he was ranked as the best quarterback in the 2018 class. Lawrence is likely to see plenty of time on the field, though the questions is how and to what degree. While Dabo’s pedigree is to side with the veteran over the freshman, he’s not the kind to simply side with Bryant if it becomes clear Lawrence makes the team better.
Finding himself ascended to third-string on the depth chart, Chase Brice is often the forgotten man in the quarterback race. A touted prospect from Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia, Brice is a solid prospect that could be a capable starter for the Tigers. The transfer of three quarterbacks has allowed Brice to stick around. He continually remains a subject of praise from Swinney, and even received attention this time last season.
While the quarterback race is largely a Bryant-Lawrence affair, this isn’t a knock on Brice by any means. He has good arm strength, poise in the pocket, and leadership intangibles from his time leading Grayson High School to a state title at the highest level in the state of Georgia.Coaches have noted his competitive nature in practice and continue emphasizing that he remains a factor. If there’s a weakness for Brice, it’s that he’s at Clemson during a period where the wealth of quarterback talent is at the highest it has ever been in arguably school history. However, Brice is a prospect that will provide great depth for the position behind Bryant and Lawrence. Fans should be happy to hear about his continued development, as too many competent quarterbacks is never a bad thing. If anything, Clemson should be happy that it’s likely one of the few teams in the country that could have an ability to go three-deep on quarterbacks.
A former walk-on, Batson earned himself a scholarship as a quarterback after the three departures. Batson had been practicing at safety and had been an emergency quarterback, but he’ll now at the position full-time for the foreseeable future. He is currently listed at fourth on the depth chart. Batson isn’t likely to see the field much this season, though he could sneak minutes in games against the likes of Furman or Georgia Southern.
An alum of Dorman high school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Batson turned down offers from smaller schools to walk- on at Clemson. With a need for depth in the secondary, Batson was assigned to play safety despite little experience at the position. Now back at quarterback, Batson will provide much-needed depth while the Tigers work on shoring up the position in the foreseeable future. All in all, another pretty cool story for a former walk-on gaining a scholarship for the Tigers.
It’s amazing that three quarterbacks (one of which was a former-five star gem in the 2017 class) can transfer and your team still have three capable of picking up the slack. While I see Bryant holding firm on the job long-term, Lawrence will likely see the field for meaningful snaps. Of course, I wouldn’t be shocked if Lawrence was able to unseat Bryant for the job during the regular season. However, Lawrence still has much to prove, as he’s only been on campus since January. Coaches haven’t named Lawrence as the starter, and Bryant remains one of the team’s biggest leaders. There’s no need to immediately crown Lawrence as the savior when he hasn’t had a chance to develop yet. After all, we as fans don’t see everything that happens in practice, so nobody has the whole picture on him aside from the coaching staff. Much is being made of the competition in camp at the position, but regardless of who eventually nabs the starting role, the Tigers are in good position for a fourth-straight trip to the College Football Playoff regardless of which walks on the field.