After nine months of constant quarterback talk, the debate has finally ended, though not in the ways people probably expected. Only a few days after Dabo Swinney announced freshman Trevor Lawrence as the starting quarterback against Syracuse, senior Kelly Bryant himself has opted to transfer from the program. According to local media reports from Manie Robinson of The Greenville News, Bryant informed Swinney of his decision on Tuesday. By opting to transfer now, Bryant is making use of the new redshirt rules, which allows him to keep his final year of eligibility and play immeditately for any program.
Obviously, there’s plenty to digest here. With a 16-2 record as a starter, Bryant proved himself as a capable enough quarterback, earning ACC Championship MVP Honors and guiding Clemson to the College Football Playoff. Through the first four games, Bryant completed 66% of his passes while accounting for four touchdowns and amassing 610 yards of offense. However, it also became clear that Lawrence outperformed him through those games, which led to the coach’s decision to promote Lawrence.
The fact that Bryant is transferring so early (and smack dab in the middle of the week when we should be talking more about the matchup against Syracuse), is a move that nobody really could’ve predicted. In a way, Dabo Swinney was in the toughest position of everyone. Bringing in a freshman quarterback who’d clearly earned playing time and arguably gave the team the best chance to win, Swinney instead opted to use a two-quarterback system to give both the opportunity to compete. By doing so, Swinney also provided Bryant the flexibility to do whatever he wanted, and by no means did he nor the coaching staff appear to manipulate or favor Lawrence over him. The statistics even bear this out. If anything, this is a pretty fair reflection on Dabo for allowing Bryant the latitude to even make this decision.
Bryant’s sudden transfer also leaves him with one of the most interesting ending legacies of any Clemson quarterback. On one end, fans could see this as the senior quarterback quitting on the team and not “sticking it out,” leaving the teammates who supported and went to bat for him. However, Bryant made his views known on the decision to roll with Lawrence.
Calling the decision a “slap in the face” and shifting blame to the coaching staff (who by all means appeared to placate him with two-quarterback system and gave him every opportunity to keep his job) doesn’t have the best look either. They also paint what appears to be an unfair picture of Swinney and the coaching staff, who appeared to give Bryant all indications of the status of the quarterback situation. It’s been clear that Swinney and the staff aren’t ones to make absolute nor bold promises to its players, and have been one of the more open coaching staffs when it comes to transparency. Swinney handled this in perhaps the best way a coach could given the quarterback situation. Credit goes to him for not only giving Bryant a shot, but giving him the opportunity to leave and being a consummate professional throughout.
As for the immediate impact of how Bryant’s transfer affects the team, there’s no doubt it will impact the rest of the football players, coaching staff, and employees within the program. Bryant’s decision, while he is making it in the best interests of himself, has widespread reach that hits more than his performance on the field. He had a lot of clout and support in the locker room, but his absence will now create a void. It will also undoubtedly put more internal pressure on Lawrence. There is no doubting the ripple effect this is having beyond the fans and the world of college football, especially when it comes to the use of the new redshirt rules. David Pollack was on ESPN after the news saying this unintended consequence of the rule is bad for teams and undesirable for the sport.
So what does this mean for the team moving forward? For one, Lawrence is now the unquestioned starter and will see the field for all of the non-garbage time snaps. It also means that quarterback depth takes a hit, though at this point it just means Clemson is just like every other team with a high-level starter and unproven backups. Chase Brice (who has stuck around a quarterback room that’s now lost four quarterbacks in a span of eight months) is now the main backup. Brice has been praised by coaches for his potential, though limited spots have shown he still needs more time in the offense.
It’s important to note that many of Clemson’s prominent skill players are young and have appeared to be more responsive to Lawrence when he’s on the field. Part of the coach staff’s decision to swing to Lawrence as the starter could also boil down to a simple factor: the offense has begun to galvanize around the freshman quarterback. It’s obvious he’s grown a rapport with the receiving corps, and players like Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross become much more featured in the passing game as the dominant threats they can be. On the ground, Travis Etienne and the rest of the running backs have had clearer lanes to run through and get more carries as they gain bigger roles in the Tigers’ run game.
At the end of the day, Bryant exercised his right under the rules to transfer, but it must also be remembered that Swinney gave him the way out to do so. Whether people think it’s right that he left now, or that he’s wrong and quit on the team in the middle of the season, there’s no denying one thing: KB did a lot of good things for Clemson during his time as a starter, and would be an asset for many football programs, especially one willing to make use of his athletic ability. All the best to Bryant at his next school as he begins the next phase of his life and career.
Moving forward, it will be telling to see how the team responds on Saturday against a Syracuse team that is feeling confident having been the victor last season. Coming out with a convincing victory against the Orange could go a long way in moving past the sudden shock of Bryant’s transfer. It’s a new day in Clemson football.