Kelly Bryant is never going to throw for 4,500 yards and 40-plus touchdowns in a season. That is not the kind of quarterback he is.
However, he is not going to throw 17 interceptions either.
Bryant is not Deshaun Watson. He is simply Kelly Bryant, and that’s why he has the Tigers back in the College Football Playoff for a third straight year. And though Bryant’s success, despite his different style, has surprised the fans and the media, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has not been surprised at all.
Swinney saw what Bryant was capable of when he was in high school at Wren High School in nearby Powdersville, S.C. During Bryant’s senior year, he played Swinney’s oldest son Will, now the Tigers’ holder. Swinney watched as Bryant led his team right down the field for the winning-touchdown.
“I’m literally leaving the stands to get back to the team, thirty-four seconds on the clock. I thought this one was over,” Swinney said. “With thirty-four seconds he takes them down the field to win the game. I’m going, ‘Wow! He’s a winner.’
“The best of the best make everyone around them better. That’s exactly what Kelly Bryant does.”
And that is what Bryant has done in his first year as a starter for the Clemson Tigers. He has made them the No. 1 team in the country heading into their Jan. 1, CFP Semifinal Game at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against No. 4 Alabama.
“It’s great to see all the work I’ve been putting in during the off-season just to be in this moment right now,” Bryant said. “It’s special ’cause we had a lot of questions going into the season, a lot of guys that left last year. But, you know, just having the guys around me, the coaches believe in me, it’s just been really great to see.
“I’m just trying to do my job, like Coach Dabo said … be the best version of Kelly B that I can be.”
The best version of Kelly Bryant is ranked fifth in the country in completion percentage at 67.4. He has thrown for 2,678 yards with 13 touchdown and six interceptions. They’re not mind-blowing numbers like Watson’s were, but they are efficient nonetheless.
Bryant has also rushed for 646 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
“When I recruited him, I didn’t recruit him to be Deshaun,” Swinney said. “I just recruited him to be Kelly Bryant. That’s what we do with all of our players. When he came here, it was a dream of his to come to Clemson. He knew when he came in here that Deshaun was already here and rolling. But he embraced that. He came in and had to continue to develop.
“But I think the best part about Kelly, because one of the keys to any football program is how guys are developing when they’re not playing mentally and physically, how are they staying engaged and focused on the process, developing the mindset when they’re not playing. Maybe they’re redshirting or maybe they are the third team quarterback. They’re just not getting a lot of opportunity.
“What I love about Kelly is for two years he had a front row seat to a phenomenal player in Deshaun Watson, who is also a 10-star person. But how he prepared, how he got ready, how he handled the bright lights, how you handled failure, how he handled criticism, just his weekly commitment, his preparation, all of those things. I think Kelly really took note of that, just learned a lot.
“He put the work in. He prepared every week to go be the guy, even though he probably wasn’t going to play, barring an injury. I think that has paid off for him.”
It paid off big in the ACC Championship Game last week. Bryant set an ACC Championship record by completing his first 15 straight passes, including seven of those on third down as Clemson raced out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Bryant earned ACC Championship Game MVP honors for his performance as he finished the night 23-of-29 for 252 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown pass to Deon Cain. He also had an 11-yard scoring run in the second quarter.
“Kelly has just been great all year,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “Just the guy he’s become. Just stayed his-self, been true to himself the whole time. You have all this hype, now he’s proven he can play. He hasn’t let that go to his head.
“He’s still the same goofy Kelly. Now he’s emerging as a leader for us even more. He knew he had to step up and be a leader and contribute on the field. Now he’s even more so of a leader. Guys are looking up to him. He’s one of the first guys to come over and congratulate the defense when we get a three-and-out, make big plays like that. That doesn’t go unnoticed. He’s great with that. He’s really embracing it. He’s been great for us all year.”
He’s been Kelly Bryant all year.