Monday Morning Quarterback
Dabo Swinney had several opportunities following Saturday’s Orange & White Spring Game to end the speculation on who was going to be his starting quarterback in the fall.
Unlike the start of spring practice when the Clemson coach said confidently Kelly Bryant was his starter or unlike April 2 when he responded to a question on when he planned to name his starting quarterback, Swinney was not as adamant.
“We got a starter right now,” Swinney said on April 2. “Kelly’s our starter, so there’s no announcement unless that changes … Kelly’s the returning starter. He started 14 games, so that’s where we are.
“So if something changes, there’s an announcement to make. If not, there’s no announcement.”
There is still no date on an announcement, but something has definitely changed.
When asked if Bryant was still his starter after Saturday’s spring game, Swinney basically said the senior is at the moment, leaving the door open for a possible change during fall camp.
“We will sit down and have exit interviews with all of those guys,” Swinney said. “But regardless of what any post spring depth chart says, it just really does not matter. We don’t play until September…
“There is still work to be done and that is what we tell these guys at every position.”
Bryant struggled to throw the football in front of 55,000 fans and a nationally televised audience on ESPN, while freshman Trevor Lawrence and sophomore Hunter Johnson shined. Bryant, who led the Tigers to a 12-2 record and a third straight ACC Championship last fall, completed just 8-of-15 passes Saturday for 35 yards. His longest completion was 12 yards.
Johnson and Lawrence on the other hand completed passes of 50 and 37 yards. Lawrence actually had two more long throws but he was whistled down before releasing them as quarterbacks were not live in the spring game.
It was obvious being hindered from running the ball affected Bryant’s game. He was not comfortable in the pocket and he was unable to hit Milan Richard or Hunter Renfrow on deep throws as he overthrew both on what would have been big pass plays.
Throwing the deep ball was Bryant’s issue last season as he either did not trust himself to let it go or missed on them. He threw just 13 touchdown passes last fall.
“You are disappointed because those are a couple of big plays you did not take advantage of, but he has made a lot of big plays,” Swinney said. “This kid has proven he can win at a high level for us. That is number one for us, but like I have said, last year has nothing to do with this year. You have to prove it all over again.”
Though it was a spring game, Lawrence had no issue slinging the ball down field. Better yet, he trusted what he was seeing and he let the ball fly.
Swinney admitted after the game that on Lawrence’s 50-yard bomb to Tee Higgins down the far sideline the play was supposed to go the tight end. However, the freshman noticed the linebackers and safeties sat on the route, but he saw Higgins had one-on-one coverage with Mark Fields so he threw Higgins open and let the 6-foot-5 wide receiver run under the ball for an easy touchdown.
Later in the game, Lawrence again hit Higgins with a deep pass but he was ruled down by contact as defensive tackle Christian Wilkins tagged him just before he released the pass. He was also tagged down just as he released a long pass to tight end Braden Galloway, in which he threaded the needle between two defenders to get the ball to his fellow freshman.
Like Lawrence, Johnson showed no fear throwing the ball deep, either. On the game’s first play, he threw a 37-yard jump ball to Higgins, which the tall wide receiver went up and got for him.
There were other things as well Johnson and Lawrence did that showed Clemson’s offense is a little more wide open when they’re in the game than it is with Bryant. The offense resembled more of what it was when Deshaun Watson was leading the Tigers to back-to-back national championships a couple of years ago.
Some may argue that you cannot change Bryant as the starter, at least right now, because he is the leader of the locker room. However, it can be argued the other players in that locker room saw the same thing everyone else in America saw on Saturday.
In fact, they have seen it in practice almost every day for the last six weeks.
“I think chemistry in the locker room is critical. The best teams are led from within,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said, “but at the same time, game recognizes game. Obviously, guys are going to respect (that) and obviously they’re going to respect the coaches, too. If the best guy is not on the field, then obviously that can hurt your locker room so we are going to do the best we can to make sure everyone gets a fair opportunity to be the best guy.
“It is not going be favoritism. It is not going to be the most talented. It is going to be the best overall guy that can get the job done and win at the highest level.”
If that does not sound like there is a quarterback controversy then what does? When listening to what Swinney and Elliott said after Saturday’s game, it sounds to me that something has changed at quarterback and an announcement will have to be made at some point either before or during fall camp.