NEW ORLEANS — During Clemson’s national title games against Alabama the last two years, Kelly Bryant could be seen standing on the sideline, relaying signals from the box to then starting quarterback Deshaun Watson.
This time around, in Alabama-Clemson Part III, Bryant will be in Watson’s shoes. Clemson’s first-year starter will be the guy taking those signals and orchestrating the Tigers’ offense against the Crimson Tide’s formidable defense in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
“When I was a signal-caller, I was pretty much playing the game mentally in my head,” Bryant said recently. “I knew the play before it was snapped. So now, in a different situation, I’ll actually be on the field and having to play the game mentally and physically.”
Fortunately for Bryant, he paid attention to Watson while he went to work against Alabama in the 2016 and 2017 national championship games.
Bryant hopes that will pay off in his first College Football Playoff start.
“I know what to expect,” Bryant said. “Watching Deshaun, how he carried himself on the field and how he carried himself on the sideline communicating with all the quarterbacks and coach Streeter as well… I know how it looks. I just want to continue to do my job like he did when he was here.”
One thing Bryant picked up on was Watson’s poise, no matter the situation.
For instance, the Tigers trailed the Tide 14-0 early in the second quarter of last season’s national title game. But Watson never flinched and helped Clemson retaliate with an 87-yard touchdown drive that served as a kick-start for the Tigers.
“You have to ride the highs and lows of a game and continue to play,” Bryant said. “There’s going to be good and bad. It’s just how you handle the adversity that may kick in in a game and continue to stick together.”
Bryant didn’t just watch Watson when he played on the biggest of stages, however. Bryant also witnessed Watson’s work ethic behind the scenes — in the meeting room and in the film room.
Studying Watson’s approach to the game has helped Bryant prepare himself in his first season as the Tigers’ starting quarterback.
“The amount of hours and amount of notes that he was taking in meetings, the amount of film he was watching… It’s something I’ve tried to instill in my game,” Bryant said.
“One thing with him, he didn’t try to do too much, he didn’t try to do too little,” Bryant continued. “He continued to have that same preparation that he had throughout the season. So that mindset, mentally being prepared, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve tried to challenge myself with the game coming up.”
Bryant has filled in admirably for Watson through 13 games, throwing for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns against just six interceptions while making Clemson the No. 1 team in the country.
The native of Calhoun Falls, S.C., hopes to keep the success going for two more games, beginning with Alabama on New Year’s Day.
“For me, it’s a blessing,” Bryant said. “I just want to make sure that I leave no regret and finish on the right note.”