Deshaun Watson isn’t walking through that door anymore at Clemson. Can the Tigers get steady play at quarterback as they look to repeat in 2017?
No one said that replacing Deshaun Watson was going to be easy.
Clemson put a bow on its spring football season on Saturday, as the team played its annual spring game. And although a ton of stock shouldn’t be put into such an exhibition, it is clear that Dabo Swinney’s Tigers will miss Watson in the 2017 college football season.
The future NFL Draft pick was in attendance along with other former teammates this past weekend, and he saw Kelly Bryant, Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson continue their competition for the starting job. But there weren’t too many offensive fireworks, which was much different from when Watson was putting together Heisman Trophy finalist seasons.
Israel was arguably the best performer of the bunch, completing 13 of 19 passes for 94 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass, to lead the Orange team to a 19-14 victory. Many of his completions were on short routes, although he did hook up with national championship game hero Hunter Renfrow on a 34-yard deep sideline play.
Cooper went 11-of-18 passing for 81 yards, but he threw an interception over the middle of the field right to safety Nolan Turner. He throws a nice deep ball, but most of his completions were also on short throws. Meanwhile, Johnson looked very much like a true freshman outside of an impressive 24-yard touchdown on a fade route to Diondre Overton. He went 5-of-13 passing with an interception, with Denzel Johnson making the pick when the QB threw into double coverage.
The biggest news to come out of Saturday, though, was the play of Bryant, who entered this battle as the most experienced quarterback on the roster. He only completed four of his 13 pass attempts, with the longest play being a 32-yard shovel pass to Ray-Ray McCloud. He also threw an interception to Korrin Wiggins on a forced throw over the middle. However, Bryant was not at 100 percent after suffering an injury to his pinkie finger on the first play of the game. That occurred after he hurt his hamstring earlier in the week. Swinney said that Bryant, who gained 66 yards and scored a touchdown on 12 carries and ended up being the game’s leading rusher, would be the team’s starting quarterback if the regular season was upon us.
Swinney and co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have had the rising junior Bryant running the No. 1 offense throughout spring, so he is certainly the odds-on favorite to win the starting gig. But when he gets back to full health and preseason drills begin, he will need to be sharp and crisp from the get-go so he doesn’t lose any of his lead in the race to replace Watson.
Bryant knows the offense very well and has the talent to succeed in this attack. Those aren’t concerns. But can he bring the intangibles to the table that Watson was able to throughout his career and in the team’s 2016 championship campaign? Those key attributes in the huddle or on the sideline that don’t appear in the box score? Those things will ultimately tell the tale of Clemson’s 2017 season as it bids to repeat as national champs without the seasoned leader that helped the Tigers break through the last few years.