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Spring Football 2017: Replacing a Campus Legend

Kelly Bryant, Clemson
Deshaun Watson's last-second, thrilling touchdown pass to top Alabama in the 2016-2017 National Championship not only claimed Clemson their first title in over three decades, but immortalized the quarterback in school history. In three seasons as starter (split time with Cole Stoudt in 2014), Watson put together one of the most impressive resumes the sport has seen in a long time. He won the ACC twice, made the Playoff twice, won a National Title, finished third and second in Heisman voting in different years, and beat archrival South Carolina every time he played them. However, Watson made the expected jump to the pros a year early, leaving Clemson looking for the man to replace the campus legend. Three main candidates are vying for the gig, a chance to run an explosive offense and defend that title. Who will win it, and what we can expect from them and head coach Dabo Swinney moving forward?

Since he took over the Clemson program years ago, Swinney has done a masterful job of raising the talent level. He has consistently hauled in some of the top classes inside the ACC and nationally, which has enabled him to have some real studs throughout his depth chart. This means that while it will be a huge transition moving on from No. 4, the cupboard is not bare for the Tigers. The three main names vying for the open gig are junior Kelly Bryant, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson, although the situation is not firm enough that a couple other names could put themselves in position to take snaps. Bryant is the most experienced returning passer on the roster, although that is an extremely relative term, considering that he has thrown just 18 passes in his Clemson career. That includes nine attempts in 2016-2017, in which he saw action in mop-up duty against South Carolina State and Syracuse. He played pretty well in both of those games, but it is hard to get super excited about some pinpoint throws against inferior competition. Other than the fact that Bryant has the most passes of the returning quarterbacks, his advantage also rests in his knowledge of the offense. Sitting behind Deshaun Watson and learning from him, Bryant has learned from one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in a Clemson up-tempo scheme that is very complicated. The two competitors behind him may have more talent and potential, but they lack any sort of game experience. Zerrick Cooper was a four-star recruit in 2016 that has all the tools to put on quite a show for the Tigers. He received a redshirt this past season, but should be able to grow up quick. Cooper is not known for his accuracy or feel for the game, but he has the huge arm and athleticism to really fill up a highlight reel. True freshman Hunter Johnson also remains firmly in the hunt for the job, as an intriguing prospect. Johnson hails from Brownsburg, Indiana, and opted to head South despite heavy interest from Big Ten schools. He is rated as a five-star recruit by many scouting services (including ESPN and 24/7 Sports) and has reportedly impressed already in the early spring. The trio leaves Swinney and the rest of the coaching staff with a pretty classic dilemma: go with the young stud (Cooper/Johnson) or the more experienced, safer decision (Bryant). It wouldn't be completely crazy to think Clemson may roll with a multi-quarterback job early on, considering that is what they did when they were forced to replace former long-time starter Tajh Boyd. Swinney loved Watson at the time but out of respect, also gave senior Cole Stoudt plenty of time and rolled with the two-QB system for weeks.

Breaking in a new signal-caller will require plenty of work done by every member of the offense. First off, the offensive scheme has to be simplified somewhat. Many people believe that all shotgun orientated, spread attacks are not complicated, but the Tigers offense doesn't generally fit the stereotype. Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, the team's co-offensive coordinators let Watson read so much of the defense and make so many decisions on the fly, which they won't have the opportunity to do with a younger, less experienced QB at the helm, so adjustments will have to be made. Also effecting the strength of the offense is going to the the fact there is less help. Stud wide receiver Mike Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett and many pieces on the offensive line all depart, leaving the Tigers searching for more answers than just the quarterback position. Much like the QB situation, that doesn't mean that there is nobody left to step up. Former walk-on and Alabama kryptonite Hunter Renfrow returns along with Deon Cain, Artavis Scott and others. Those receivers will have to be reliable and smart in how they work with their new quarterback, and be patient enough to know that Watson is no longer slinging it to them. Overall, the theme for the defending champion Clemson Tigers has to be time and patience. Replacing a player that impacted and controlled the game like Watson isn't going to happen overnight. But, if the staff is able to simplify things and somebody is able to rise above the rest at QB, this team should still enter summer and fall camp with significant momentum and confidence.

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