Clemson, SC – It was never supposed to end this way. When Kelly Bryant signed his National Letter of Intent in 2015, neither Bryant nor Swinney would have forseen the course of events that have occurred over the past four years.
Just days after learning that Trevor Lawrence would be the starting quarterback in the two quarterback rotation system, senior Kelly Bryant announced in an exclusive interview with Manie Robinson of the Greenville News that he is going to transfer. This came just thirty days after he was named the starter against Furman and explained why he decided to not transfer after the 2017 season.
In the first year of the NCAA’s revised redshirt rule, several players have elected to leave their programs before losing a year of eligibility. Instead of the one snap rule, the four game rule has given players flexibility to stay and see where they stand before making a decision.
Both sides knew the plan for the first two years – sit behind star quarterback Deshaun Watson and become his understudy. Tucker Israel entered the quarterback room at the same time as Kelly Bryant, but injuries and Kelly’s performance kept him from entering the conversation as a serious contender to take over the void left by Watson.
Kelly Bryant had flashes of brilliance his freshman year – he alternated with Nick Schuessler as Watson’s backup, appearing in seven games his freshman year and three games his sophomore year. During the final demolition of Al Golden’s Miami Hurricanes, Bryant scored on a 59-yard touchdown run for the highlight of his freshman year.
While he played less as a sophomore, Deshaun Watson was the unquestioned star of the team that won it all over the legendary Alabama Crimson Tide, and Kelly Bryant earned a national championship ring.
Four quarterbacks competed to take Deshaun Watson’s place (Chase Brice redshirted) leading up to the 2017 season. Few thought that only one would remain just sixteen months from the National Championship game. Even fewer believed that Kelly Bryant would be the last man standing.
Kelly Bryant’s hand injury led to an unimpressive performance in front of fans in the spring game, fueling speculation that he was going to be the backup. After a neck and neck spring, Kelly Bryant responded by having an incredible summer and fall camp. He was announced as the starter near the end of fall camp – a role he wouldn’t relinquish all year long.
Clemson lost one game that year at Syracuse – a game he had to leave due to a pre existing injury. He led the Tigers to an ACC Championship as the beloved leader of the team. The Tigers ran into the buzzsaw of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, where they lost 24-6. Fans bashed Kelly Bryant, to which Swinney stated that “Everyone wants to put last year’s Sugar Bowl on Kelly. They don’t have a clue what they are watching … That is such a bad narrative, and it is so far from reality, it’s not even funny.”
Trevor Lawrence arrived on campus in January of 2018 just days after Alabama won the national championship. At that point there were six quarterbacks in Coach Streeter’s meeting room. Zerrick Cooper transferred to Jacksonville State on Janurary 19th, and backup junior Tucker Israel followed a few days later. Hunter Johnson transferred to Northwestern in late May – leaving Kelly Bryant, Trevor Lawrence, and Chase Brice as the only scholarship quarterbacks left.
Would Kelly Bryant follow their footsteps? He considered after the spring semester, but he elected to stay and compete for the starting job just one year after he earned the job for the first time. He would have been eligible to play for another school immediately.
On August 27th, he confirmed in an interview with Matt Connolly of the State that he considered transferring. He elected to stay and compete for the job – expressing how he leaned on the support of his veteran teammates and how starting over would have put him in the same situation:
“I feel like if I would’ve left, I would have been doing the same thing, had to go out, prove myself, compete again. But that’s not in my character to just leave like that, especially with the guys I came in with being a big, tight group. We’ve done so much. I didn’t want to leave, especially on terms like that. I wanted to compete and show everybody the type of guy I am. That’s what I did. I stuck it out. It’s not always going to be pretty.”
Just thirty days later, Bryant had to make one the toughest decisions of his life.
Throughout four games of competing with Trevor Lawrence, the two had their fair share of excellent and rough moments. Kelly Bryant was the spark that led the Tigers to a win at Texas A&M, while Trevor Lawrence was the spark of the Tigers offense at Georgia Tech.
Coach Streeter broke the news to Kelly Bryant on Sunday, and Coach Swinney followed up on Monday. The coaches made the decision that Trevor Lawrence should start against Syracuse – noting the offensive production when he was on the field. They also emphasized that Kelly did nothing wrong and that he still was needed on the team.
Coach Swinney gave Kelly Bryant the day off on Monday, but he did not practice on Tuesday – which was his birthday. Coach Swinney also kept both quarterbacks off limits to the media this week – in an understandable move to ease their burdens (Clemson is generous with media access to coaches and players).
In his most emotional press conference in recent memory, he expressed his feelings for Kelly Bryant and how he tries to run his program the right way:
“It’s a bad day to be the head coach. Most days its good. This was a bad day, because I love Kelly.”
“If I was worried about that [keeping Kelly Bryant for a fifth game to eliminate transfer options] or I was deceitful, I could have huddled the coaches up and said ‘Hey, let’s make sure we start him for Syracuse and that way he’s got no options. That’s not how I operate. We don’t operate that way. I’m just trying to do what’s right, and I’m not going to ever apologize for that.”
Swinney explained that a coach’s job is to criticize in a sense – there has to be a first, second, and third team. This is in contrast to God, where “we are all first team” – remarking how thankful he is that God is not a football coach. Coach Swinney carefully handled the question when asked if Kelly Bryant discussed transferring. Coach Swinney reiterated several points – stating that it was an emotional conversation and that they discussed a variety of subjects.
Bryant told Manie Robinson that, “I’ve been with this senior class for four years. Seeing how much we built and poured into this program, it’s tough to walk away from it. But at the same time, I’ve got to do what’s best for me. And I feel like this is the best situation for me.”
Coach Swinney in the same Tuesday press conference reiterated his love for Kelly:
“There’s not a guy that’s ever been here as long as I’ve been at Clemson, there’s not a guy that’s more committed to this program than Kelly Bryant. There’s not a better leader. He’s the epitome of what you want. He’s what you want your son to be like.”
Kelly understandably struggled with his demotion, sharing his thoughts with Manie Robinsion:
“They asked me how I felt about it and I was like, I’m not discrediting Trevor. He’s doing everything asked of him, but on my side of it, I feel like I haven’t done anything to not be the starter. I’ve been here. I’ve waited my turn. I’ve done everything yall have asked me to do, plus more.”He continued,“I’ve never been a distraction. I’ve never been in trouble with anything. To me, it was kind of a slap in the face.”
Kelly Bryant’s attitude was similar to the attitude he expressed with his famous phrase of “Just being Kelly B.”when he stated that: “I was just going to control what I could control and try to make the most of my opportunity …”.
Where the narrative diverged was the second part of the quote Kelly Bryant gave Manie Robinson: “… but at the end of the day I just feel like I haven’t gotten a fair shot.”
After the transfer, Coach Swinney shared both his love for Kelly Bryant and his insistence that the competition was fair: “There’s no question he had a very fair shot here. We’ve been as honest and open and as transparent as possible. But he’s entitled to feel however he wants to feel. And nothing changes how I feel about him. I think he’s one of the best young people I’ve ever been around. It’s impossible for me to say anything bad about him. And I hope nobody else does either. Just wish him well. Support him even though you might not like his decision, and we’ve got to move on. That’s just where we are. That’s where it is today.”
Just as no one envisioned this coming, no one knows what will happen next. The only thing that is known is that Kelly Bryant is still forever a Clemson Tiger.