A lot of you have asked me, “What will Clemson do with its quarterback situation, especially if Kelly Bryant isn’t 100-percent for the Georgia Tech game?” The answer is no one knows except Clemson.
However, if I had to guess Zerrick Cooper would be the next guy up simply based on what the coaches—Dabo Swinney, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott—told us following the Tigers’ loss to Syracuse this past Friday.
“Zerrick has been the guy since we came out of camp,” Elliott said. “He came out and he did a good job with it. Before the game he was managing the system so we stayed with him.”
Cooper completed 10-of-14 passes for 88 yards after Bryant left the game with a concussion just before halftime. Cooper led Clemson on two scoring drives. One ended with a 30-yard Alex Spence field goal and the other was a result of a 52-yard Travis Etienne touchdown.
Swinney thought Cooper played well and the plan all along was to stay with Cooper as long as he played well. The coaches’ decision not to play true freshman Hunter Johnson surprised fans and the media alike, especially after Johnson went 5-for-5 for 49 yards and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cannon Smith in the Wake Forest game.
But Johnson was never the plan against Syracuse.
“Zerrick is the second guy. He has been the second guy,” Swinney said. “I actually think he played pretty good. He did some good things.
“We did not help him in a couple of situations. We had a couple of missed assignments and had some mistakes. So we will evaluate and move forward.”
So where do the Tigers (6-1, 4-1 ACC) go from here? Swinney and his coaches always use the bye week to self-scout the team and see what they can do to improve. They will probably find a lot of things to fix on offense.
There is a trend showing the Clemson offense if on the way down right now. Since its 47-21 win at Louisville on Sept. 16, the Tigers’ points total in the following four games gradually decreased.
Against Boston College the next week, Clemson scored 34 points, then 31 against Virginia Tech, 28 against Wake Forest and 24 against Syracuse.
Compared to the first seven games last year, the Clemson offense is down in total yards, scoring and touchdowns. This year, the Tigers are averaging 449.0 yards, 33.4 points and 4.6 touchdowns per game. Last year, they were averaging 465.7 yards, 36.6 points and 4.9 touchdowns per game.
Also keep in mind this year’s Tigers have three non-offensive touchdowns through seven games compared to two last year.
Now, I believe, if Bryant was 100-percent healthy against Syracuse things would have been different. There were several times a healthy Kelly Bryant would have made some big runs and Clemson would not have been in the trouble it was in.
Which leads to the question, what is the best thing for Clemson if Bryant’s sprained ankle is not 100-percent? In my opinion, right when I noticed he could not run during a first-quarter rollout, Bryant should not have played against Syracuse. He was not healthy enough to run the offense in the way it is geared for him.
In my opinion, what makes Bryant such a special quarterback is his ability to run the football. Because he is so fast and runs like a running back in space, it gives Clemson an element few teams in the country have at the quarterback position. When you take that away from him, he becomes a pocket passer and that is not his strength.
If Bryant can’t get the wheels turning like he needs to, then give one of the other two quarterbacks the keys to the car for a week or two. If that is Zerrick Cooper then fine, roll with it. But if there is any inclination that Hunter Johnson gives the offense the best chance to be able to run the zone-read it likes to do with Kelly Bryant and the best chance to get the ball down field accurately, then go with the true freshman.
Sometimes, changing things up is the best plan.