Watson will be missed, but Tigers are loaded at the quarterback spot
|Monday, July 11, 2016, 8:08 AM- -|
Clemson’s rivals across the ACC and the region can’t wait for Deshaun Watson to leave for the NFL, hoping that Watson’s absence will bring the Tigers down a notch. Don’t count on it, because Clemson is loaded at quarterback for the foreseeable future.
There is no doubt that Watson is a once-in-a-generation talent, and much of Clemson’s success can be attributed to his stellar play during an injury-plagued freshman season and his Heisman finalist sophomore season.
Watson became the first FBS player to top 4,000 passing yards (4,104) and 1,000 rushing yards (1,105) with 47 total scores. He was fifth nationally in completion percentage away from home (67.9) and fifth in overall completion percentage (67.8), and third nationally among quarterbacks with 1,105 rushing yards. He also had five 100-yard rushing performances, all in the last six games as the Tigers fell just short in the national title game against Alabama.
Watson hasn’t made it a secret that he plans to graduate early and leave for the NFL after this season, and Clemson’s rivals and opponents will only be too happy to purchase his cap and gown and a one-way ticket out of town. Their hope is that the loss of Watson will somehow stunt Clemson’s ascension into the national elite.
But elite programs don’t rise and fall with one player, and Clemson’s future success or failure can’t be tied to Watson. Sure, he’s an important cog in the machine this season. Anytime you have college football’s best player taking snaps behind center you’re a better program for it, but Clemson is stockpiling elite quarterbacks at a dizzying rate.
In other words, Clemson will be just fine once Watson’s Clemson career is over.
Let’s start out with who will be on the roster this season, and it starts with Kelly Bryant. Bryant battled veteran Nick Schuessler in the spring for the right to back up Watson, but this will be Schuessler’s last season in Clemson and you have to figure the coaches will do whatever they have to do to get Bryant ready to play.
Bryant was the team’s fifth-leading rusher last season, despite playing as a backup quarterback and in only eight games. He had 156 rushing yards, with two touchdowns, and his 6.8 yards per carry average was best on the team, given a minimum of 20 carries. During the spring game, he was 10-16 for 95 yards with two touchdown passes and 29 rushing yards.
The coaches didn’t exactly open the playbook for Bryant during his freshman campaign, but he came on late in games and with the Tigers trying to not run up the score. One exception was at Syracuse, but a critical fumble ended his prime time action for a few weeks. Can he become a better passer and earn the coaches’ trust this season, and be the recipient of more playing time? Only time will tell, but this fall camp will tell us a lot about where Bryant stands.
Forgotten by many is Tucker Israel, who redshirted last season but came to Clemson after an award-winning career at Lake Nona High School in Orlando. Israel set six state passing records and broke Tim Tebow’s state record for passing touchdowns in a season (56), 10 more than Tebow. He also set the state record for career passing touchdowns (162) and passed for 15,034 yards in his career. As a runner, he had 1,314 yards and 18 touchdowns on 222 carries in his career, so he’s no slouch as a ball carrier.
He will be eligible to play this season, and like Bryant, fall camp will be critical for his future. If he proves he can play, he has the ability to earn playing time this season as the coaches prepare for life after Watson.
Enter freshman Zerrick Cooper, who is already on campus and will compete in fall camp. Cooper is yet another in a long line of 4-star prospects that will dot Clemson’s roster this fall, and he comes to Clemson on the heels of a decorated career at Jonesboro High School in Georgia. He was rated as the ninth-best quarterback prospect in the nation by ESPN, and the seventh-best quarterback in the nation by 247 Sports.
Cooper completed 161-267 passes for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2015, and he threw just four interceptions while adding 359 yards on the ground. He’s another dual-threat talent that will compete for playing time once Watson leaves.
The rich get richer in January. That’s when 5-star Clemson quarterback commit Hunter Johnson is expected to enroll. Johnson spent the past week wowing anybody and everybody at Nike’s The Opening. In 2015, he completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,545 yards with 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but his high school (Brownsburg, IN) is expected to convert to more of a spread offense this season in an effort to take advantage of Johnson’s talents.
Johnson bested many of Watson’s scores at the Elite 11 and at The Opening, and like Watson he has that “it” factor that coaches look for. Adding him into the mix with Bryant and Israel and Cooper in the spring will make for an interesting spring practice in 2017.
It doesn’t end there. Four-star quarterback commit Chase Brice will be on campus next summer, and the Loganville (GA) Grayson product is certainly no slouch. He’s impressed at every camp he’s been to this summer and has all the tools to be a great college quarterback.
In 2015, Brice passed for 2,708 yards and 29 touchdowns, against just nine interceptions. In 11 games last season, Brice was not on the field or played with a running clock due to the score at halftime against some of the top teams in the state of Georgia.
What does it all mean? Sure, a talent like Watson will be missed. But the Tigers have recruited well – extremely well – and have talent and depth at perhaps the most important spot on the field. Competition breeds success, and there will be plenty of competition starting in January.