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How Did it Work Out? What Happened to the Tigers who Transferred from Clemson?

The grass is greenest in Clemson. Don’t leave.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian Baker, CB
Last year at Clemson: 2016
Destination: Oklahoma State

Adrian Baker was at Clemson for four years including his 2013 redshirt season. In 2015 he started three games. He was set to make a bigger impact in 2016, but tore his ACL and missed the entire year. He then grad transferred to Oklahoma State, however issues with the injured knee held him back and eventually led him to leave OSU and football altogether. It’s a shame injuries took football from him sooner than he would have liked. It is a reminder that getting a degree, as he did, is so important. We wish him well and hope his non-football hopes and dreams are coming to fruition.

Germone Hopper, WR
Last year at Clemson: 2015
Destination: None

Hopper was a 4-star prospect ranked as the #8 WR in his class. Known for his speed, he had offers from Clemson, Auburn, UNC, and Virginia Tech among others. He was recruited by Danny Pearman and came to Clemson in 2012. Unfortunately, he never made a major impact in a crowded WR corps. After posting 317 receiving yards and one TD in his redshirt junior season, he decided to grad transfer to be closer to his significant other and new baby. He ended up working at a barber shop and never signing on with a new program, but he stayed in football shape a later signed an NFL contract with the Houston Texans. Although he never caught a pass in the NFL, it had to take some real grit to get an NFL contract at all after missing a full year of college football.

Scott Pagano, DT
Last year at Clemson: 2016
Destination: Oregon

Pagano is the first transfer on this list that I think a lot of us felt didn’t make much of sense when it happened. Pagano played 2014, 2015, and 2016 with Clemson and was a major contributor in those last two season. In the Tigers 2016 National Title season, Pagano played in 10 games, collected 20 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 2.0 sacks. He was passed on the depth chart that year by freshman phenom Dexter Lawrence and likely would have been a reserve in 2017 at DT behind Lawrence and Christian Wilkins - the latter whom was moving back inside after a season at DE. Nevertheless, Clemson’s heavy rotation along the DL meant he would get plenty of snaps and a good opportunity to show his talent to the NFL while playing in big games.

Looking to secure a starting role, he instead left and chose the Oregon Ducks. He played in only four games there, recording no TFLs. First, he had surgery to repair a foot injury suffered towards the tail end of his last season at Clemson. This forced him to miss the first two games of the season. Then a mid-October shoulder injury sidelined him until the “Civil War” against Oregon State. He ended his college career by playing in the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. He was not selected in the NFL draft.

Hunter Johnson, QB
Last year at Clemson: 2017
Destination: Northwestern

Hunter Johnson was a highly-touted recruit that came to Clemson in 2017, just after Deshaun Watson had led the Tigers to the National Championship and then departed for the NFL. As a freshman, he served as the third-string QB behind Kelly Bryant and Zerrick Cooper.

When Kelly Bryant exited the Syracuse game with an injury, the Tigers called upon Zerrick Cooper rather than Hunter Johnson, much to the chagrin of the fan base, and Clemson suffered their only loss of the regular season.

The next year, the Tigers added Trevor Lawrence to the QB room and it seemed like Johnson could fall further down the pecking order at QB. When that got coupled with unforeseen health issues with his family back in Indiana, he decided to transfer closer to home.

His decision to transfer from Clemson was, as ESPN put it, “drama free.” He was known to love the Clemson community. He was friends with President Clements and involved at Newspring Church.

“I loved it there. I really did,” - Hunter Johnson

Leaving Clemson on good terms, Tiger fans typically root for “HJ” when he takes the field at Northwestern. Unfortunately, that happened less than expected in 2019. After sitting out 2018, Johnson began the season as the starter, but struggled mightily in a generally weak offense. He finished the season just 50-108 passing with 1 TD and 4 INT and lost the starting job. He’ll hope to earn it back in 2020.

Zerrick Cooper, QB
Last year at Clemson, 2017
Destination: Jacksonville State

A highly rated prospect out of Georgia, Zerrick Cooper came to Clemson in 2016 and redshirted his first year. In 2017, he was the second-string QB behind Kelly Bryant. He split mop up duty with Hunter Johnson and attempted 41 passes. While he served as an adequate backup, he was not dynamic. He was unlikely to usurp the job from Kelly Bryant and was likely to be leapfrogged by incoming QB, Trevor Lawrence.

According to the Greenville News, when Zerrick Cooper told Coach Swinney that he would like to transfer, Coach Swinney helped him find a destination:

“When I told Coach Swinney that I wanted to transfer, he told me he’d put a word in for me with Coach Grass. And everything just kind of fell into place.”

At Jacksonville State, which is in northeast Alabama, Zerrick Cooper earned the starting QB job in his first season (since he was transferring down to FCS, he did not have to sit a year). He posted 3,416 passing yards with a 32-14 TD-INT ratio. Then, in 2019, he posted 3,404 passing yards while throwing for 28 TDs and 2 INTs. He led Jacksonville State to a 10-2 (8-0) record.

“I don’t regret transferring from Clemson. I think it was one of the best moves I’ve made in my life so far.” - Zerrick Cooper

Kelly Bryant, QB
Last year at Clemson: 2018
Destination: Missouri

Arguably the most interesting name on this list, Kelly Bryant left Clemson mid-way through the Tigers’ 15-0 2018 season after he lost the starting QB job to Trevor Lawrence. By leaving Clemson after only four games, he was able to redshirt and play a redshirt senior season, which he completed at Missouri in 2019.

His performance was of interest to Clemson fans for several reasons; the most interesting being to see how he performed with lesser talent around him. Those who predicted he would struggle were right.

In his only full year as a starter at Clemson (2017), Bryant completed 65.8% of his passes for 2,802 yards (7.0 YPA) and a 13-8 TD-INT ratio while running for 665 yards and 11 TDs. Clemson went 12-2 and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl with him at the helm. Two years later, as the starter for Missouri in 2019, he completed only 62.0% of his passing for 2,215 (7.6 YPA), a 15-6 TD-INT ratio and rushed for just 242 yards and a single touchdown. Missouri won four games and fired their Head Coach.

While Bryant didn’t get worse, he showed minimal progress as a passer (at least statistically), which validated the position of fans who argued he hit had already hit ceiling around the time he left Clemson. His performance at Missouri also highlights that Clemson was getting the most out of him and utilized his skill set appropriately in their scheme. While Kelly Bryant shouldn’t have any regrets on taking a shot and trying to prove himself to be an NFL-caliber QB, his is a cautionary tale that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Shaq Smith, LB
Last year at Clemson: 2018
Destination: Maryland

This was one of the more shocking transfers in recent years. Even Coach Swinney said he “didn’t see that coming.” Shaq Smith was a highly-touted four-star prospect out of IMG Academy in Florida - originally from Baltimore. He chose Clemson over Auburn, LSU, and Maryland.

He redshirted his first year as he was trying to adjust to the higher level of competition and grasp the playbook. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, he played sparingly, just 73 snaps. As a redshirt sophomore he began making more of an impact. He had 140 snaps, a sack against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, and contributed on special teams in the Tigers 44-16 win over Alabama.

With linebackers JD Davis, Kendall Joseph, and Tre Lamar all departing, he was expected to become the starter, but home was calling.

“...Maryland fired Durkin and hired Locksley, and Locksley hired Robinson to be his defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach. That grabbed Smith’s attention.”

Smith had just won a National Championship and become the first college graduate in his family, and now he was ready for a fresh start closer to home. As a grad transfer, he was immediately eligible to play and became the starter. He tallied 24 tackles (14 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack and four pass breakups. He has one more year of eligibility to take his game up another level and try to get drafted.

Josh Belk, DT
Last year at Clemson: 2018
Destination: U of SC

Belk was a four-star prospect out of Richburg, SC. He was expected to play a small role as a freshman, but then a significant one as a sophomore when the Tigers would be replacing the Power Rangers. He was an early enrollee, in January, but by Fall Camp, he was ready to transfer and chose Clemson’s in-state rival, U of SC. Health issues with family members back home in Richburg, SC were cited as the reason for the transfer. Richburg is about an hour and a half closer to Columbia than to Clemson.

The NCAA granted him immediate eligibility, but his impact was limited. He played in four games and totaled 7 tackles with no TFLs. After the season, news broke that he was leaving football altogether. The Greenville News points to these two tweets as the best explanation:

Tavien Feaster, RB
Last year at Clemson: 2018
Destination: U of SC

After three years as a reserve at Clemson, Tavien Feaster was looking for an opportunity to start. With Travis Etienne returning for his junior season in 2019 and Lyn-J Dixon already nipping at his heels, transferring was his best opportunity to do that. John Simpson explained that “It is what it is. He came from a rough area. He’s trying to make the money that he can to help his family out.”

Feaster’s choice came down to U of SC and Virginia Tech. Clemson fans hoped he’d choose Virginia Tech so they could continue to pull for him, but he chose the in-state rival Gamecocks.

There he competed with Rico Dowdle for carries. He got 124 carries and Dowdle got 106, each playing in 10 games. The 124 carries (12.4 carries per game) was a career-high for Feaster, who peaked in 2017 as a Sophomore at Clemson with 107 carries (7.1 carries per game). With all the weapons around him in 2017, including a running threat at QB (Kelly Bryant), he was far more effective averaging 6.3 YPC and collecting 8 rushing TDs. While he got more opportunities per game at U of SC, they played in three fewer games (no post-season) and his effectiveness was limited by his surrounding cast. He averaged just 5.4 YPC and got only 5 rushing TDs. In end, it was another case where you can’t blame him for taking a shot and seeing what he could do in an expanded role, but transferring to U of SC is seldom a wise choice.

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