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Clemson Moves to Trevor Lawrence for Obvious Reasons

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NCAA Football: Clemson at Texas A&M John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

It has taken 4 games, but it is now official, Trevor Lawrence is QB#1 at Clemson. While some have been clamoring for a change all season, the coaching staff was finally convinced after Lawrence’s best game of the season against Georgia Tech.

In 2017 one of the biggest issues with Clemson’s offense was the ability to score on big plays, in particular with big passing plays. With Kelly Bryant the offense was efficient, but that did not help against better teams when Clemson would need to pick up big chunks of yards on individual plays. This has continued into 2018, but we’ve seen apparent improvement when Trevor Lawrence is in the game.

To try and quantify this, I took the play-by-play data for every offensive snap involving Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence for analysis. I removed all snaps that occurred in garbage time, defined as one team being up 21 points in the 4th quarter, 27 points in the 3rd, 37 points in the 2nd, or 43 points in the 1st quarter. Below are the top level stats for Bryant and Lawrence.

Kelly Bryant Success Rate

Opponent Pass Plays Run Plays Success Passing Downs
Opponent Pass Plays Run Plays Success Passing Downs
Furman 11 7 7 6
Texas A&M 21 20 16 16
Georgia Southern 6 16 15 4
Georgia Tech 6 2 2 4
Totals 44 45 40 30
Success Rate 44.94%

Trevor Lawrence Success

Opponent Pass Run Success Passing Downs
Opponent Pass Run Success Passing Downs
Furman 14 10 14 5
Texas A&M 9 6 4 4
Georgia Southern 19 20 17 6
Georgia Tech 16 14 20 9
Totals 58 50 55 24
Success Rate 50.93%

The big difference here is in success rate. With Lawrence at QB we see Clemson having success on 50% of snaps compared to 45% with Bryant. Over the course of the game this can end up being anywhere from 2-5 plays better. A successful play is defined as one that gains 50% of yards needed for a first down on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down. It matters because if an offense is successful it gives them options. 2nd and 5 opens up the playbook a lot more than 2nd and 8. The more successful an offense is the easier it is to continue drives and even hit big plays because the defense has to be concerned about running and passing plays.

With this in mind we broke down the game logs into passing plays and running plays to measure success. One thing we’ve talked about a lot is how the running game can be impacted by different QBs in the game. We wanted to look at that as well as taking a look at how successful each QB is when throwing the ball.

Kelly Bryant Success Breakdown

Opponent Run Plays Run Play Success Pass Plays Pass Play Success
Opponent Run Plays Run Play Success Pass Plays Pass Play Success
Furman 7 4 11 3
Texas A&M 20 6 21 10
Georgia Southern 16 12 6 3
Georgia Tech 2 1 6 1
Totals 45 23 44 17
Success Rate 51.11% 38.64%

Trevor Lawrence Success Breakdown

Opponent Run Plays Run Play Success Pass Plays Pass Play Success
Opponent Run Plays Run Play Success Pass Plays Pass Play Success
Furman 10 7 14 7
Texas A&M 6 1 9 3
Georgia Southern 20 8 19 9
Georgia Tech 14 10 16 10
Totals 50 26 58 29
Success Rate 52.00% 50.00%

Here we see that Lawrence is much more successful than Bryant on passing plays. This comes despite both players having nearly identical completion percentages. But success requires advancing the ball and that just doesn’t happen as much in the passing game when Bryant is on the field. Most throws tend to be screens or other short routes. Lawrence on the other hand is throwing the ball down the field more, both deep balls and intermediate routes.

Now there has been a lot of talk about the types of plays that are being called for Bryant versus Lawrence, and that is a fair discussion to have. These numbers aren’t going to capture a difference playcalling tendencies for each QB, but it is telling that the staff isn’t putting Bryant in the same situations as Lawrence.

One nugget that was interesting to me was how success rate on running plays was almost the exact same. We’ve had a theory that Lawrence’s throwing ability allows the running game to be more successful because defenses must respect his ability to throw whereas with Bryant the defense can stack the box with defenders. It appears that Bryant’s ability to run coupled with our potent running game negates any “advantage” Lawrence’s passing ability would give our running game. That’s not to say the yards per carry numbers are the same for each QB, but it was interesting to see the success rates being extremely similar.

Now the final stat that shows how Lawrence expands our offense is his success during passing downs. A passing down is defined as an obvious passing situation and it comes with 2nd and 8, 3rd and 5, or 4th and 5. The idea is that any distance to go greater than these numbers tips the hand of the offense. Once again we broke the passing down plays into rushing plays and passing plays below.

Kelly Bryant Passing Down Success

Opponents Total Passing Downs Passing Down Pass Plays Passing Down Pass Play Success Passing Down Run Plays Passing Down Run Play Success
Opponents Total Passing Downs Passing Down Pass Plays Passing Down Pass Play Success Passing Down Run Plays Passing Down Run Play Success
Furman 6 5 1 1 0
Texas A&M 16 7 2 9 1
Georgia Southern 4 2 1 2 0
Georgia Tech 4 0 0 4 0
Totals 30 14 4 16 1
Success Rate 28.57% 6.25%

Trevor Lawrence Passing Down Success

Opponent Total Passing Downs Passing Down Pass Plays Passing Down Pass Play Success Passing Down Run Plays Passing Down Run Play Success
Opponent Total Passing Downs Passing Down Pass Plays Passing Down Pass Play Success Passing Down Run Plays Passing Down Run Play Success
Furman 5 4 3 1 0
Texas A&M 4 4 0 0 0
Georgia Southern 6 5 2 1 0
Georgia Tech 9 6 4 3 2
Totals 24 19 9 5 2
Success Rate 47.37% 40.00%

Here is where we really see a difference in Bryant and Lawrence and it isn’t even close. In situations where the defense knows Clemson has to pass and Clemson knows they have to pass Lawrence is a much more effective passer and more importantly he succeeds in getting the offense back on schedule.

The one concern in these charts is Lawrence going 0/4 on passing downs against Texas A&M. My recollection is a lot of that had to do with shoddy OL play and some questionable calls, but those are the situations where Lawrence is going to have to step up to give Clemson a victory against playoff caliber teams.

What is worth noting as well is that Lawrence’s ability as a passer does appear to have an effect on rushing success on passing downs. It is an extremely small sample size, with only 5 plays, but Lawrence is able to get a 40% success rate as opposed to Bryant’s 6.25% success rate. The only caveat I’d mention here is that the high number of rushes on passing downs by Bryant may come from strategic playcalling to improve field positioning or other game management decisions. But even with that caveat it is pretty telling.

Ultimately all of these numbers tell us what our eyes have said all year. Trevor Lawrence provides Clemson with a lethal passing game and opens up the offense. With Lawrence Clemson can utilize the entire playbook and put together both methodical drives as well as explosive big plays. For Clemson to make, and possibly win the College Football Playoff the offense has to execute in both ways.