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Clemson QBs Take Center Stage

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Clemson is one of the favorites to win the national title. How the quarterback situation evolves and is handled, may, for the Tigers, help tell the tale.

Quarterback is such a different monster because it is more mental than anything else.
~Tajh Boyd

It is quite possible that Clemson has two of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Junior Kelly Bryant is fresh off a season where he led the Tigers to an ACC Championship, the College Football Playoff and was a finalist for the Manning Award, given to the nation's top signal caller. Freshman Trevor Lawrence enters as the number one recruit in the game and as the state of Georgia's all-time passing leader, breaking records held by, of all people, Deshaun Watson. As Clemson makes another run at number one, it does so with two passers in play.     

With 82 wins the past seven years and 40 victories over the last three seasons, back-to-back-to-back trips to the final four included, head coach Dabo Swinney has the reigns to a college football superpower. He also has options, most specifically at the game's most important position. Though a crowded depth chart can come with all types of roster reshuffling, see the recent transfer of talented reserve Hunter Johnson to Northwestern, contention, through it all, is Clemson's full-scale theme.

Interestingly enough, three of the four College Football Playoff teams that return their starting quarterback from 2017, the Tigers alongside Alabama and Georgia, enter the fall with, at the very least, conversational competition at play. 

"I think it says a lot about how the evolution of how college football has gone," explained Tommy Bowden, former head coach at Clemson and Tulane. "These quarterbacks are coming in so prepared, with the 7-on-7 camps and with the style of offenses where there is so much of a burden that is put on the quarterback as a 10th-grader, 11th-grader, 12-grader and then they are coming in through January and going through spring ball. I think it says a lot about the quality and talent level of the prospects coming in."

The quarterback position has never been more high-profile, a spotlight where the surrounding circle can become a continual tug-of-war. Not only are the top programs not immune to such potential controversy at the top, they are the catalysts who drive it as the push for talent remains forward and never-ending. Amongst the top contenders, there is comparability between the rosters; how coaching staffs develop and position that ability is how titles are won.

Season-to-season, quarterbacks play a foundational role for each team. 

"In general, any college quarterback that starts the year prior, that is their job until any of the other guys prove they are worthy," explained former Clemson All-American Tajh Boyd. "Once you reach a point where you are a national championship contender every year, the players are going to get better and better and the competition is going to get that much more stiff. The only thing it really does is put a chip on the starter's shoulder. But the room for error becomes less and less. It can be a good thing, you have to play your best on a weekly basis."

While players vie for starting jobs at every position on the field, quarterback battles can be much more complex. The combination of media coverage, fan interest and on-field influences often make for a delicate set of circumstances. Other positions come with natural substitutional rotations, the opportunity for multiple players to perform within the confines of a fluid-but-fixed depth chart situation. QB1, however, rarely works that way.

No position in sports comes with the responsibility of being a team's first-team signal caller. Managing the game can sometimes take a back seat to simply managing the moment. When there is a direct competition at play, the consequences of any and every scenario can be magnified. The psyche of starter and reserve, alike, can be caught in the middle.

"Quarterback is such a different monster because it is more mental than anything else. Being a starter and knowing how that goes and how the number two is always the favorite, those guys hear all that," Boyd stated. "I think all those guys deserve support and you can't deem somebody the starter that hasn't started a game yet. Sometimes you get into a situation where you have that because those guys don't feel they have the love and support they should. And you have to earn that year after year, so there is always something to prove." 

There is no script to follow when it comes to dealing with multiple game-ready quarterbacks. That said, there are some past examples. Games can be won a variety of different ways and, with football, there is no predicting the future. Take the two teams that just played for the national championship: Georgia saw true freshman Jake Fromm replace Jacob Eason in game one after the returning starter went down to injury, while Alabama made an unprecedented switch at halftime in benching Jalen Hurts for Tua Tagovailoa. The rest, obviously, is history.

Teams have won playing two quarterbacks. Teams have lost playing two quarterbacks. When it comes to maximizing such situations, the perfect formula for an inexact science is still being researched.

"I think you can, of course, that's been my background," Bowden answered of winning with two guys. "I was a young coach just getting in the profession with my father at Florida State, he went 11-0 with a two-quarterback system with two guys, Wally Woodham and Jimmy Jordan. These guys didn't just play every other game, he would put them in every other series. I think a lot of it depends on how the head coach handles those two guys because they each got their little circle of friends on the team."

Depth at the game's most importation position can manifest itself a number of different ways. Perspective, from all parties, helps set the tone. Teamwork, from teammates, is a must.  

"Three years ago, Kevin Sumlin lost three good, quality quarterbacks. Urban Meyer kept three quality quarterbacks, so it's how you communicate their role," Bowden continued. "As the media might say, 'they have a quarterback problem, they've got a quarterback battle'. To me, it was a good problem to have, it meant you had pretty good talent."

Clemson is clearly one of the favorites to win the national championship. How the quarterback situation evolves and is handled, may, for the Tigers, help tell the tale.

Bryant, impressively, has never lost a regular season game in which he has started and stayed healthy. Of Clemson's two missteps a year ago, the Syracuse loss came after Bryant left the game with injury. Though his critics were out after the Tigers struggled offensively in a Sugar Bowl defeat to Alabama, Bryant's season-long efforts came with context; he ranks first in Clemson history in interception avoidance and second in completion percentage. Furthermore, Bryant set a new mark for wins by a first-year starter, including six victories over ranked foes.  

Since 2000, just nine power five quarterbacks have had a single season with at least 2,800 passing yards and a completion percentage of 65% and at least 650 rushing yards and ten scores: Brett Hundley, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Tim Tebow (twice), Vince Young, Deshaun Watson and Kelly Bryant. 

"I think it's his persona. He has the ability to be such an elusive athlete that it does make it hard to strategize against him," Boyd nodded of what makes Bryant successful. "When you are looking at Bryant and his skillset and talent, one of the things you have to continue to tell him is you don't have to go out there and win the game, you need to be the guy that rallies the troops, makes sure everybody is level, be an extension of the coach on the field and make the plays that prevent turnovers."

Against one of the toughest schedules in the country, Kelly proved key for Clemson time and time again. He outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in a September showdown at Louisville, throwing for 316 yards and a touchdown and rushing for two more scores. Bryant, at nationally-ranked NC State, threw for a touchdown and ran for another over the final 19 minutes, his last score proving to be the difference in a comeback triumph. An ACC Championship Game rout of Miami saw Bryant earn MVP honors after 23-of-29 passing. 

A respected team leader, Bryant, at 6'4'', 220 pounds, has stood tall for Clemson both on the field and in post-game pressers. He has shown he can handle the pressure in whatever form it comes. Bryant's persistence and poise has come to define the Tigers. 

"A lot of these players' jobs is making their players in believe them and this is Bryant's job until the guys don't believe in him anymore. And I don't think that's the case right now. I don't know what is going to happen this season," Boyd observed. "But once you look around and talk to the guys, you see how much the guys appreciate him as the leader and the quarterback. At any position in business and life, if you are capable of leading, guys are going to follow. Once you prove unworthy of that, though, guys will start looking elsewhere."

Few prospects, ever, have entered the college game as heralded as Lawrence. Dubbed by some pundits as a truly generational talent, he rewrote Georgia's prep passing records with 13,902 career yards and 161 touchdowns. As the top overall recruit for the class of 2018, Lawrence committed to Clemson back in December of 2016 and stayed true as countless power programs stayed in pursuit. For years now, he has been groomed for early playing time with the Tigers.

"He's one of those guys that looks like he has some of that Deshaun Watson in him," Bowden added. "It's going to be an interesting battle."

Lawrence's upside is likely one of the reasons the ultra-talented Johnson transferred, creating a two-player race for one coveted position.

"Trevor Lawrence, Kelly Bryant, the best you can do is third now," Bowden speculated of the depth chart. "If there is that little separation between Trevor Lawrence and Kelly Bryant, it would not surprise me at all if Trevor Lawrence takes the first snap when you open up that first season. If he doesn't, I think he will probably take the first snap of the second game."

An early enrollee, Lawrence impressed as he participated in Clemson's spring practice. In front of more than 55,000 fans and a nationally-televised ESPN audience, Lawrence, in his unofficial debut, completed 11-of-16 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown in the annual Orange and White scrimmage. The star of the day, it was Lawrence who opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown strike to Tee Higgins for the winning Orange side.      

"That kid is a three-and-done kind of talent. Personally I think he has the biggest arm I have ever seen in person outside of Matthew Stafford," Boyd exclaimed. 

Albeit in a glorified practice setting, Lawrence had the best performance of the quarterbacks. From there, as they could in an array of directions this fall, the storylines spun.

"A lot of people put stock into spring games and one of the things you saw was pressure situations. The moment Trevor threw that touchdown, Bryant did not respond the way he normally would have, the way he should have," Boyd detailed. "But he can't play like that this season because if he does I don't know how the odds look for him. So he has to find a way to calm his nerves and play the game the way he has his whole life, play the game the way it should be played and I think everything else will take care of itself."

For all of Lawrence's tools, experience is not yet on his lengthy resume. That asset can only come with time.

"The biggest thing is you don't want to get these guys in situations where, because you have seen their small sample size, you feel like they are ready for the big show. And a guy like Trevor may be. But I don't think he has quite earned that right yet," Boyd shared. "And hey, this is football and football can be fickle sometimes and, at the end of the day, the guys have to go out and perform."

Fall camp, for Clemson, opens soon. Before the Tigers take on the rest of college football, they, certainly Bryant and Lawrence, will compete against each other.

Who knows what the future holds for Clemson, but the present is full of possibilities. Swinney has a roster as talented as any in the country, with, conceivably, two different quarterbacks very much capable of helping the team win. Playing time aside, a proven veteran and a heralded newcomer will soon come together for a common team goal. A season's worth of ebb and flow awaits.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports