After 15 intense, intriguing spring practices, the Clemson Tigers are ready to showcase their efforts in the form of the most highly anticipated Orange and White Game that has taken place in several years. While several position battles are at stake, certain to be heavily decided based upon Spring Game performances, at the core, Saturday’s exhibition is all about one position: quarterback.
Very rarely does a defending national champion find itself in the midst of a logjam quarterback battle in the ensuing spring. While mainstay Deshaun Watson has since taken his talents to the NFL, in his wake is a three-man arms race for the new starting quarterback gig at Clemson.
Junior Kelly Bryant and freshmen Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson are all gunning for the starting job, with Kelly considered the front-runner but the other two not far behind him.
Each of the three has his respective pros and cons that assuredly make the looming depth chart decision for Coach Dabo Swinney and his staff a difficult one. While Bryant played well in relief of Deshaun Watson off and on last year, all of his in-game collegiate experience so far has seemed to occur in proverbial garbage time situations against inferior teams.
While Kelly certainly boasts plenty of speed and is definitely the most athletic of Clemson’s quarterbacks, he lacks the arm strength and pocket presence that the other two boast. Yes, due to his quickness, Kelly is particularly adept at escaping pocket pressure when forced to scramble, but he lacks the poise and drop-back ability that the other two top quarterbacks have.
Cooper, on the other hand, quite simply has not done enough during spring ball thus far to indicate that he is ready to run one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses. Built very similarly to Watson, Cooper sports some of the same talents as Watson. His arm strength is impressive, and his playmaking ability is obvious. However, his lack of experience may prevent him from being able to successfully lead the team this coming season, as his learning curve appears to be steeper than that of Watson’s.
Johnson has come on strong in recent weeks, playing remarkably well to be so young. An early enrollee, Johnson followed in Watson’s footsteps by graduating from high school and enrolling in Clemson early in order to get a head start on his assimilation into the Clemson offense. A pro-style quarterback, Johnson has future NFL superstar written all over him, and his winning pedigree from high school indicates that he could be the right quarterback for leading the national championship-contending Tigers this year.
With all three expected to continue competing for the starting position between now and the end of fall camp, the Spring Game will serve as the primary reference point regarding who is the best candidate for the job. The gravitas of the situation is indicated by the fact that Saturday’s “exhibition” will be the most game-like Spring Game that Clemson has held in quite some time, specifically because the quarterbacks will be live.
Live quarterbacks, of course, means pass rushing and the possibility of sacks taking place, which excites defensive end Clelin Ferrell.
“That’s big. You really got to bring it now, with those guys out there competing. It’s going to be good to see them go out there and compete.”
Referring, of course, to the quarterbacks, Ferrell made it clear with his giddy response that he and his fellow pass rushers will not tread softly when applying pressure to the starting quarterback hopefuls tomorrow.
The Orange team, overseen by Swinney and led by co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, features Bryant, and he is expected to receive the bulk of the snaps throughout the game. As for the White team, overseen by Swinney and led by the other co-offensive coordinator, Jeff Scott, it features both Cooper and Johnson, who are expected to split a fair share of reps during the game.
Bryant has been hampered by a minor hamstring injury recently, but Elliott told reporters that he expects Bryant to be fully healthy for the game. As for the idea of having a quarterback battle take center stage at the Spring Game, Elliott likes the sound of that, and he loves the idea of it taking place in live-ball action.
“When you got three guys legitimately vying for the spot, and it’s close, you need that live evaluation to see who’s going to be the guy.”
“The guy,” whomever it winds up being, has rather large shoes to fill and championship aspirations to help Clemson live up to. Therefore, the more realistic the scrimmage situations are between now and September, the better.
While the Orange and White Game may not be the be-all or the end-all in terms of the quarterback battle, it could shed conspicuously bright light on the situation at hand. Due to the fact that all three contenders lack quality experience at the college level, the competition is essentially wide open at this point.
Any of the three aforementioned quarterbacks can make his case for being the best man for the starting job tomorrow when playing in the biggest showcase of the preseason. The opportunity to head into the offseason with the lead in the hotly contested battle is on the line, which should provide for plenty of excitement at a spring game that is going to be far more than just an exhibition.