Coming into the 2018 season, the most talked about aspect of the Clemson football team was by far the position battle at quarterback.
Following the Tigers’ national championship victory over Alabama in January of 2017, the beloved Deshaun Watson declared for the NFL Draft, and with that, opened the door wide-open for Clemson’s 2017 quarterback race, one that was eventually won by then-junior Kelly Bryant.
Bryant led Clemson to a 12-2 season and a third-straight ACC Championship and College Football Player appearance, but even that was not enough to boost fans’ trust in Bryant following the Tigers’ disappointing loss to Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. His two picks and lack of down-field throwing were talked about heavily during the offseason, despite neither resting largely on his shoulders.
Following the loss, Clemson turned its attention to 2018, and that brought the arrival of the highly-recruited and madly-talented freshman Trevor Lawrence. Upon Lawrence’s arrival in January, the Tigers had a multitude of studs in its quarterback room that included Lawrence, Bryant, Hunter Johnson, Zerrick Cooper, Tucker Israel, and Chase Brice. If you want to discuss depth, nobody in the country had that kind of depth at that moment.
Things quickly changed in the coming weeks when Israel announced he would be getting his degree and transferring for his final year of eligibility. Soon after, Cooper bolted for Jacksonville State and Johnson eventually wound up at Northwestern. Suddenly, Clemson’s quarterback room had been cut in half. Only the veteran, the future, and the redshirt third-stringer remained.
Bryant, Lawrence, and Brice all ended up having 2018 seasons that looked completely different from what anyone expected. Each filled in their designed roles though, and the Tigers do not win the national championship if each does not have a shining moment at some point in the season.
Entering 2018, senior Kelly Bryant was listed as the guy for Clemson, despite Lawrence nipping at his heels all summer and into fall camp. Bryant had proven himself worthy to fill Watson’s shoes, and many felt his veteran presence would be the deciding factor in the battle with Lawrence, and ultimately for the first four games it was. Bryant got the start against Furman and was efficient in the Tigers’ win over the Paladins.
Week two on the road against Texas A&M was Bryant’s shining moment of the season. After stumbling through most of the first quarter and trailing the Aggies 3-0, KB responded with a stellar drive that was capped off by this ankle-breaking touchdown run:
After Trevor Lawrence’s draw-dropping touchdown pass to Tee Higgins, the young freshman was clearly rattled during the remainder of his time on the field, so Dabo made the right move and went with Bryant for the second half, and the veteran took over. His touchdown pass to Diondre Overton expanded Clemson’s lead and silenced many doubters of KB’s throwing ability:
The good news in all of this is Bryant’s poise and leadership that helped lead Clemson to a statement win early in the season and saved many doubts about this 2018 team.
The bad news is that this would be Bryant’s last shining moment as a Tiger.
After splitting more time with Lawrence vs. Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, the coaching staff made the decision to go with Lawrence for game five vs. Syracuse, and Bryant ultimately decided his time with Clemson had come to an end. He announced his choice to transfer soon after the decision to start Lawrence broke, and the end of an era officially gave birth to the beginning of the future.
Bryant finished 35-for-53 with 456 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception through the air, and added 144 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
His decision to leave in late-September helped kickstart the new redshirt rule/transfer portal fiasco that is hitting college football right now.
From an analytical standpoint, Bryant’s decision to transfer will allow him to develop into an NFL quarterback at a program where he will be the star on the field. His long-ball accuracy has much improved since the start of 2017, and the short-range game has stepped up as well. The place where Bryant needs improvement is in the decision making process and willingness to stay in the pocket. We know KB likes to use his legs, and when scrambling in the open field, he can hurt a defense. What I think NFL scouts will be looking for from Bryant in 2019 is his ability to hit throws consistiently and have better pocket awareness.
We bid farewell to Kelly Bryant and all he has done for Clemson football.
Trevor Lawrence entered 2018 as the backup, but many believed he would eventually take over and become the starter, and he did just that.
We knew what to expect from Lawrence: the ability to throw, good decision-making skills, and a calm personality in tight moments. What we did not expect was his poise in the process that led to him becoming the starter. Through four weeks, Lawrence was clearly the better passer, but his posture on and off the field began to steal the hearts of Clemson fans. He was comfortable in his role as backup and wanted to learn the system. He did not come in and expect the job to be given to him; he competed and earned the starting role.
Lawrence’s first big time play, aided by the wonderful hands of Tee Higgins, showed his potential and what Tiger fans loathed afterwards. Here is his touchdown pass in College Station that wowed many across the country:
Lawrence’s ability to place this pass in a spot where only the length of Higgins can make the play is exactly why NFL scouts are ready for Lawrence to be eligible for the NFL. His downfield passing improved tremendously over the course of the season. Many of his long passes in the early parts of the season sailed over his receivers heads, but by the national championship game, he was hitting receivers in stride downfield.
Another laser beam of a throw by Lawrence came against NC State. Here he is hitting Higgins in stride for the score:
Talk about a throw. Lawrence displayed this type of passing ability all season song, one of the main factors in Clemson’s juggernaut of an offense. His deep ball has gotten much better, and with the weapons he has downfield, that is dangerous for opposing secondaries.
Outside of the pocket, Lawrence is almost as deadly as he is inside. On the run, Lawrence makes wise decisions on his throws and knows he can tuck the ball and pick up yards with his feet. This throw against Notre Dame shows his ability to make throws not just in the pocket but rolling out as well:
The ability to throw in the pocket as well as on the run is what makes Lawrence a highly valuable asset at the quarterback position. The short-range and mid-range passes are there, and the deep ball is coming into form nicely. With a year under his belt, we can expect Lawrence to develop more over the offseason, something opposing defenses should be terrified of.
Lawrence finished 259-for-397 for 3,280 yards, 30 TDs, and just four interceptions. The most impressive stat to me was his performance over the final five games of the season (Duke, UofSC, Pitt, ND, and Alabama). In those games, Lawrence combined to pass for 1,436 yards, 11 TDs, and zero interceptions.
Clemson will have Lawrence for another two years, and his development will lead the program over the next couple of years. With his arm talent and the endless amount of weapons around him, the sky is the limit for No. 16.
The unsung hero of the 2018 season is without a doubt, Chase Brice. With a concussed Lawrence on the sideline in Clemson’s late-September game against Syracuse, Brice stepped in and helped weather the storm. His throw on fourth down with the game on the line helped lead the Tigers’ comeback in a 27-23 Clemson win. Let’s admire this beautiful throw one more time:
Geez, talk about ice in the veins. Brice became a favorite in the hearts of many after this dime to Tee Higgins saved the Tigers’ season. He followed the throw up with a 17-yard run that left a few defenders embarrassed for getting trucked by a backup QB.
Brice was the most overlooked QB on the roster last January, and now he has emerged as a solid No. 2 guy behind Lawrence. His short and mid-range throws have looked better and have been his biggest progression over the season, with his ability to run being a quality asset for the QB. He still has some improvement to make in the deep ball, but I expect that to grow this offseason.
Brice finished 32-for-51 for 442 yards, 5 TDs, and 3 interceptions. His biggest game was Clemson’s thrashing of Louisville, where he threw for 110 yards and 3 TDs. Brice will be the No. 2 heading into the spring, and will most likely secure that job heading into the fall.
After a dramatic beginning of the year for the quarterback situation, the solution ended pretty peacefully overall. Bryant has made a decision best for him and will get to showcase his talents for one more season. Brice has developed into a quality backup for Lawrence, who has emerged as a star for the Tigers. Clemson looks well heading into 2019, but nobody will forget this eventful 2018 season. Some said the Tigers could not handle their quarterback situation, but those people didn’t thrash Alabama for a second national title in three years.
Clemson will be just fine; actually, fine is a poor word. Clemson is set for the immediate future, and that isn’t changing anytime soon.