He still has a ways to go, but Hunter Johnson took a big step forward in Clemson’s quarterback competition during Wednesday’s scrimmage in Death Valley.
The freshman started the scrimmage by completing five of his first six passes, including a 48-yard pass to Diondre Overton. He finished the afternoon 5-of-11 overall for 110 yards with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Trevion Thompson. He did not throw an interception.
“I thought he had the best day for sure today,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said afterwards. “He really played, I thought, with good poise. He had a couple of throws where he looked like a rookie where he forgot the motion, but those are things that have to be like blinking. That has to be automatic. We don’t have time to correct the quarterback on the motion.
“Outside of those two things, he was very poised and threw some really nice balls and took advantage of his opportunities. He made some really nice runs, extended some plays with his legs and really, for the most part, where it needed to be.”
What made Johnson’s performance more impressive was the fact he did it against live competition. Swinney surprised the team before the scrimmage when he told them the quarterbacks could be tackled.
“That is something we have not done in a while and something we have not really needed to do,” he said. “I just felt like today was a good day and I did not tell anybody until right before. I did not want them to stew on it. I just said, hey, ‘We are going live.’
“It was very good for both sides. To see those guys and how they handled the pressure, all of those quarterbacks.”
All four quarterbacks handled it well. None of them threw an interception.
Kelly Bryant was 8-for-14 for 94 yards. He also had a rushing touchdown in the scrimmage. Every snap Bryant took was with the first-team offense, while Zerrick Cooper was 4-for-10 for 28 yards and a touchdown. Cooper played with both the first- and the second-team offense. Tucker Israel was 7-of-13 for 37 yards.
But the day belonged to Johnson, and though he did not go against the first-team defense all day, the coaches felt he took a step forward. Granted he missed his last five passes, but three of those passes were dropped by wide receivers, which had a lot of drops on Wednesday.
“For the first time he really got a bunch of bunch of reps and gave him some opportunities with the first team and let those guys run around and let the defense get after him,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We saw him extend some plays with his legs. He looked really confident in the pocket and made some good throws and put together some drives.”
Elliott said he started to see things slow down for Johnson. He could tell he wasn’t nervous and he was confident about what he was doing.
“When you have a young quarterback in there that is responsible for a lot of things earlier on, you can see they are a little bit jittery,” Elliott said. “They are looking to the sidelines to confirm signals just to make sure they have the right things. But he is now pushing the tempo. He looks confident stepping in there and calling plays to the offensive line. He is going to the right spots with the balls. If it was not there, he was pulling it down and extending plays with his legs.”
Elliott said the freshman even did some good things with some designed quarterback runs. He also made some guys miss in the open field and broke some tackles.
“I think he took a step today,” Elliott said.
“This was the first time we really had an opportunity to put him into some design quarterback runs like we had for Deshaun (Watson) and Tajh (Boyd) in the past and he looked really comfortable. We knew he was an athletic kid, and we knew he could run around, but when he has live bullets coming at him, how does he handle the designed quarterback run. He looked pretty comfortable doing it.”
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