When Deshaun Watson got hurt during the 2014 season, Clemson had just one other scholarship quarterback on the roster. That guy was Cole Stoudt, who quarterbacked the Tigers for seven games that year.
Chad Kelly, who finished his career at Ole Miss, was dismissed from the team following spring practice. Nick Schuessler, a former walk-on, and Stanford transfer David Olson were the other two backups. During that season of flux, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney vowed he would never again let the quarterback position get that dire.
Swinney was a man of his word.
Currently, the Tigers have junior Kelly Bryant starting. They have former five-star prospect Hunter Johnson and former four-star prospect Zerrick Cooper backing him up, while former four-star prospect Chase Brice is being redshirted.
Meanwhile, the nation’s No. 1 ranked player, quarterback Trevor Lawrence out of Cartersville, Ga., is committed to the Tigers.
Now Clemson has a different problem. Can they keep them all happy?
“I think it goes back to the culture and the environment that you have here. We’ve got the same situation (at wide receiver),” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “I look at a guy like Trevion Thompson — very highly recruited, very talented guy. Hunter Renfrow just kind of worked his way up, and here’s Trevion as a redshirt junior sitting here, and he’s one of the happiest guys on our team. Can’t wait to go out there and make a play. And again, it’s part of the culture that these guys have chosen to be a part of.”
Scott is not naïve though. He realizes some guys are going to leave and transfer to another school and do what is in their best interest.
“But I think we’re proud that we’re able to retain a lot of guys because of the environment and the culture, and then also because we play a lot of guys,” he said. “And quarterback, sometimes it’s a little more difficult because of everything going on, but there’s a difference in sitting on the sideline and feeling like you’re never going to have an opportunity for the next two years as opposed to also knowing that the coaches have shown that they’re going to give you some playing time whenever those opportunities are there.”
This season is a perfect example of that. The Tigers, who will play Syracuse on Friday night in the Carrier Dome, have played both Johnson and Cooper. They both played in Clemson’s rout of Kent State in the season opener and at Louisville in Week 3.
Cooper came in for a series when Bryant was injured in the second quarter against Auburn, while Johnson and Cooper came in and played following Bryant’s third quarter injury against Wake Forest last week.
It also helps that both Johnson and Cooper get a lot more reps in practice than most second and third string quarterbacks get at other places.
“I don’t promise anybody anything. Nobody,” Swinneys said. “I tell them all the same thing. If you come here, you’re going to have to compete. You’re going to have to earn it.
“The best players are going to play, whether it’s a walk-on like Hunter Renfrow or a five-star player. But if you come here, this is going to be an experience you’re going to love. You’re at a great academic institution, you’re surrounded by good people, and we’re going to hold you accountable and we’re going to challenge you.”
Swinney likes to use examples like linebacker Dorian O’Daniel and former defensive end Vic Beasley as guys that have proven if a player just sticks with it and trusts what the coaches are telling them, everything will work out in the end.
“We’re going to help you develop, on and off the field,” he said. “It’s no different for anybody … At the end of the day, everybody wants to play and all that type of stuff. But if you just really look at it — if you’ve got the talent and the character, and you stick with it, usually it plays out. Some guys have to be a little more patient than others, some guys need to develop more, some guys just need the opportunity. But if you stick with it, most of the time it’s going to work out in a good way.”