SYRACUSE, N.Y. – It’s amazing how quickly perceptions can change.
Although he had the most experience and was the odds-on favorite to win Clemson’s starting quarterback job coming out of spring practice, not everyone was sold on Kelly Bryant being Deshaun Watson’s successor.
Redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper had an impressive spring game and freshman Hunter Johnson was believed by many to be the most talented passer of the group.
But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hinted in mid-August that unless “something goes crazy,” Bryant would be his starting quarterback.
Nothing went crazy, and Bryant lined up under center for the first snap of the first game against Kent State and produced 313 yards – a school-record for a first-time starter.
He’s continued to earn his stripes since, guiding Clemson to a 6-0 record, emerging as the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback and reaffirming that the Tigers coaches saw something that many people did not.
Essentially, Bryant went from an unknown charged with replacing the greatest quarterback in Clemson football history to a budding star in his own right who left little doubt that he would be the man in control of the Tigers’ 2017 destiny.
So when Bryant went down with an ankle injury against Wake Forest last Saturday, there was obvious cause for concern. The medical well-being of Bryant’s ankle became a daily watch earlier this week, culminating with Wednesday’s announcement that he’d been elevated from “questionable” status to “will play” status.
That was welcome news for Clemson fans, who well remember the last time the Tigers’ had a first-year quarterback go down with injury. Deshaun Watson suffered a partially torn ACL at Georgia Tech in November of 2014 and was replaced by Cole Stoudt.
Stoudt proceeded to throw three interceptions, two of which were of the pick-six variety, and the Yellow Jackets prevailed, 28-6.
Recollections of that day – Clemson’s last road loss, by the way — undoubtedly conjure up plenty of negative visions for Clemson fans, and the mere thought of having an unproven back-up quarterback run out Friday night in the Carrier Dome to take the first snap give many of them cold chills.
Bryant gives Clemson a considerably better chance of emerging as the victor — perhaps not by the 22 1/2-point spread — but by any margin that will fan the flames of survival heading into a bye week.
Bryant has proven effective early in games, and much of the secret to Bryant’s success this season has been getting the Tigers off to fast starts. Clemson has scored on its opening possession in four of its first six games.
“It speaks to the mindset of our team, their readiness,” Swinney said. “We’ve been a good opening team for a while and been good in that first quarter. Sometimes we don’t score, but we’ve created field position, and that’s a win, too.”
But mostly, the Tigers have put points on the board.
The best way to quell an upset in the loud environment of the Carrier Dome is to jump on Syracuse early and often and essentially remove the crowd and noise from the game.
Kelly Bryant offers Clemson the best opportunity to do that, and that certainly had to be running through Swinney’s mind this week as he monitored his star quarterback’s progress on a steady basis.
This much is certain: Clemson certainly has a considerably better chance of maintaining its path toward the College Football Playoff with Kelly Bryant at the helm, and the fact that he’ll be at the controls Friday night probably has provided at least a couple nights of restful sleep this week for Swinney.
Scott Keepfer, The Greenville News