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2023 Clemson Football Season Preview: Quarterback

Only one he, him?

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Man, it’s great to be back talking about Clemson football. The summer’s been a long hot slog in Athens but I’m happy to report the students are back and we’re driving by vibes again. As an added bonus, I’m locked up in the sick bunker with a classic case of late summer Covid. Now that I’m feeling slightly human again, what better time to wax poetic on the position that will decide Clemson’s fate in 2023? If Cade is him, everything else falls neatly in place and the last two years of discontent melt away like a Reece’s Big Cup in 100-degree heat.

I’m tasked with covering the quarterback position group. I’ll give you the quick and dirty on the bench, but we all know this position group all comes down to Cade Klubnik.


The Back-Ups?

Hunter Helms - RS Jr - 6’2”, 210

Helms seems like a guy who may have carved out a starting spot at someplace like Furman or Wofford. In fact, he turned down scholarship offers at South Florida and Troy before walking on with the Tigers. He looks fundamentally sound in the little film we’ve seen and must do well in practice because he earned a scholarship along the way. Let’s keep it real though, he’s not a starting-caliber ACC quarterback. Or, you know what, I take that back, maybe he is, but I hope we don’t have to find out.

In his four seasons at Clemson, he’s attempted 25 garbage time passes, completed 14 of those for 135 yards, and has found the endzone twice. He hasn’t thrown the ball to the other team, so that’s on the plus side of the ledger. Helms had to know the deal when he walked on at Clemson. The odds of him seeing an impactful snap, at any point in his career, was low. He decided to take that risk, or maybe he decided he really liked Clemson. Folks, being a backup quarterback on the football isn’t a terrible thing in Tiger Town.

That said, if Helms is in the game, and I think he’s the second quarterback on the depth chart, let’s hope he’s playing the role of unofficial victory cigar and tossing touchdowns to whichever Swinney is still on the roster. No offense Intended.

Note: After writing this up, Hunter Helms sustained a foot injury and is in a walking boot. According to Dabo, he will be out for a few weeks and Paul Tyson will serve as backup to enable Vizzina to redshirt.

Paul Tyson - Gr. - 6’4”, 215

You kinda wonder what Mr. Tyson would be up to these days if he didn’t feel inclined (perhaps obligated?) to sign with the school his legendary great-grandfather turned into college football royalty in ‘60s and ‘70s. His great-grandfather being a certain Paul “Bear” Bryant, and the team being Alabama.

Paul was a solid quarterback prospect in the 2019. At 6’4’, 220 pounds, he certainly looked the part coming out of Hewitt-Trussville High School in Trussville, Alabama. The recruiting services saw him as a high 3* guy with room to develop at the next level. That’s great for most schools. I would have welcomed Tyson with open arms at either Purdue or K-State (I write about both of those schools as well) but Bama ain’t Purdue or K-State. A 3* quarterback, starting for Bama these days? This isn’t 2014. In fact, Tyson wasn’t the only quarterback in his recruiting class. The other guy was some 4* stay kid out of Hawaii named Taulia Tagovailoa. Taulia, interestingly enough, ended up in the same situation as Tyson. He followed a legacy to Bama, but wasn’t quite up to Tua’s standards. Unlike Paul, he pulled the rip cord in 2020 and has gone on to a solid career at Maryland.

Subsequently, Tyson did what any 3* quarterback does at Bama. He sat on the bench. The first season, that’s called a redshirt. Totally normal. He managed to see a snap in the Western Carolina game. Then came the 2020 pandemic year, and he didn’t manage to get in for even a kneel-down. 2021 needed to be his breakout year for the Tide, and compared to his first two seasons, it was. He won the holder job and back up Heisman winner Bryce Young to the tune of 10 completions on 16 attempts for 150 yards.

That’s 3 seasons and 16 attempts and no hope for a chance to win the starting job as a senior. Tyson hit the portal looking for an opportunity, and what better place to go to seek your fortune (or something) than Arizona State? His stint with the Sun Devils ended the same way his stint at Bama ended, on the bench with little chance of upward mobility. If he went to the Sun Devils looking for a chance, he certainly didn’t receive one. He made a brief cameo in the season opener and then disappeared.

That leads to today. Does Dabo bring him in if he wasn’t Bear Bryant’s great-grandson? No idea, but he’s what Clemson has to show for their dive into the 2022 transfer portal. I’m not sure what to expect out of Tyson. He hasn’t played much football in the last 4 years, and if everything goes according to plan, that will remain the case in 2023. He’ll probably take a few snaps here and there, but if he plays any meaningful snaps, it means something has gone terribly wrong. Again, no offense intended.

The Unofficial Backup?

Christopher Vizzina - Fr. - 6’4”, 210

If it feels like I’ve been bagging on the quarterback depth, I’m not. In fact, Clemson’s probably better off than most. With the new transfer portal and the new redshirt rules, having a high-level quarterback recruit on the bench with 4 games of eligibility isn’t a bad deal. You won’t see him on the depth chart (or maybe you will, I’m not sure how Dabo will go about this), but consider young Mr. Vizzina the backup. If Cade goes down for any substantial time, or in an important game for more than a few snaps, look for the gunslinger out of Birmingham to make an appearance.

Cooper Petagna, a national recruiting analyst for 247, sports compares his game to Mitch Trubisky. First off, how dare he. Secondly, that’s pretty good. He’s a big dude with a live arm that can move around some. You’re not going to confuse him with Deshaun, but you might see him run like Trevor. From what I can see, everyone (that being the recruiting talking heads) likes his physical skills, but thinks his passing needs more seasoning. He can throw the go route down the sideline but can he drop under the corner and in front of the safety on a 12-yard out?

He should have time to develop. Dabo says he considers Vizzina to be his quarterback for the ‘23 and ‘24 classes. If everything works out, he’ll be taking over for Clemson’s first two-time National Champion and first Heisman trophy winner Cade Klubnik in 2025. That means Dabo has 4 games of backup Vizzina this season. He’ll have to choose those spots wisely.

I wouldn’t mind seeing him in an early season rout to get the feel for the game, but after that, he’s break in case of emergency. If Cade gets his helmet knocked off, it won’t be Vizzina jogging onto the field to hand the ball off, it’ll either be Tyson or Helms. If Cade needs a longer break, then it’s going to come down to score and time. If the score is close, and there’s a good bit of time, he’ll play. Cade likes to run and Garrett Riley likes to run his quarterback. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Christopher asked to play in a big spot at some point this season. He’s got all the talent he needs to succeed.


Cade Klubnik - So. - 6’2”, 205

Forget anything else you’ve read this offseason folks. I’ve got no reason to lie to you. I’m not trying to hype up a Florida State team that squeaked out a win over a bad Oklahoma team in a meaningless bowl game. Cade Klubnik is the most important player in the ACC and by extension the nation. If Cade truly is “the man” then Clemson is back in their rightfully ordained spot in the elite of college football. If he’s elite, and he has that potential, there is no reason why Clemson can’t play for, and win, a National Championship. If he’s “very good” the Tigers make the playoffs but I’m not sure they can win it all. If he’s simply good or above average all is lost.

That’s some serious pressure, but I don’t think that bothers Cade much. You don’t win back-to-back Texas State Championships at West Lake (Austin) without dealing with pressure. He has all the high school accolades you could ask for in a quarterback. Not only did he win back-to-back State Championships, he won them without losing a game. The only other player to do that in the history of Texas High School football (at the highest classification) is Kyler Murray. That’s not bad company.

High school is great and all, but college football is a different beast. In a way, Cade reminded me a little of Kyler at Texas A&M (minus the hissy fit over playing time and parental interference), last year. You could see the talent, but there were moments when he tried to do too much. He needed to get some of the high school “I can do whatever I want because I’m better than everyone else” knocked out of him, and the Vols did that in the season-ending exhibition loss in the Orange Bowl.

While his season ended with a thud, you can’t overlook his MVP performance in the ACC Championship game. Drake Maye is on the lips of every talking head looking for the next UNC draft bust... ahem... stud but Cade outclassed Maye in his first start of the year, which also happened to be the ACC Championship game. You can’t do much better than 20/24 for 270 yards a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown, and a reception for 19 yards without a single turnover.

In the long run, losing the Tennessee game, while terrible for my liver, may have been the best thing for Cade. College football looked easy against the wine-and-cheese Tarholes, but decidedly difficult against the well-compensated Vols. Granted he threw for 320 yards in the Orange Bowl, but it took him 54 attempts (screams FIRE STREETER) to get there. Clemson moved the ball fine between the 20’s but when things tightened up in the red zone, Klubnik was searching for space that wasn’t available. He wanted guys “high school open” and wasn’t pulling the trigger on guys that were somewhat “college open.” He extended plays when he needed to dump the ball off. He turned down tight windows for scramble drills and the Vols scrambled him. He was a true freshman. It happens, and what better place for it to happen than a now meaningless exhibition game?

I won’t bore you with much with the basics. I find most people know what they’re looking at when they come to STS, but for anyone (maybe a Duke football...or wait, no what am I saying, I’ve never seen one of those in the wild) looking for a quick skills assessment. Cade’s a mobile quarterback capable of making plays outside the pocket with both his arm and legs. He has sufficient arm strength, but nothing obscene like Trevor. I see his physical skill set on par with fellow Austin native Drew Bress in his Boilermaker days. Good, maybe even great, but not elite. At the same time, his physical skill set isn’t what makes Cade an elite quarterback.

He’s got “it.”

If you play sports long enough, you eventually run into someone like Cade. He’s a winner. When it’s time to make plays, he makes plays. You can’t define “it.” You can’t bottle “it.” You can’t replicate “it,” but you know “it” when you see “it.”

I see “it” in young Mr. Klubink.

That’s why I’m not worried about the wide receivers. Cade’s going to make the play, and someone is going to get on the other end. That’s what happens with these type of “it” players. At Purdue, Drew Brees did it by throwing to guys who knew they were going pro in something other than football. Cade’s going to do it with 4* guys looking to make a point after playing two seasons with, no offense to DJ (since he’s into truth-telling these days), a quarterback who had everything but “it.”

What I hope he took away from the Tennessee game is faith. Looking back at the tape, that’s what was missing, and understandably so. He didn’t trust his receivers to make plays in tight spaces. He tried to do it on his own and probably for the first time in his competitive football career, he wasn’t enough. You can parse his performance however you like, but in the end, he needed to trust his guys to make plays, and he didn’t.

Coming into this season, we need the Klubnik magic outside the pocket when the occasion calls for magic. Sometimes, however, the occasion calls for staying calm, making the right read, and trusting the people around you to do their job. If he does that, and I expect he will, and the guys around him step up, and I expect they will. Clemson will be back to their winning ways.

Is Cade Klubnik “him”?

Is he the successor of Watson and Lawrence?

I think so, and Clemson better hope so. It will certainly be interesting to find out.

See y’all soon, I’ve got some things to say about Duke here in a few weeks.