Clemson discovers life after Deshaun Watson

In whole or part, Auburn may be responsible for half of the four teams currently atop college football’s playoff rankings. 

There’s itself, of course, to the surprise of many.

And, thanks to an early-season, recoverable loss, there’s Clemson, to the surprise of only some. 

For when Auburn traveled to Memorial Stadium and played unwilling foil to the defending national champion (a 14-6 Clemson victory), it also lit the wick of one most important player.

Before that game, Kelly Bryant had but one start as the successor to Clemson’s sainted Deshaun Watson. That was against Kent State and as Tigers coach Dabo Swinney put it, “He played flawless, but he wasn’t going to get any credit for that game.”  

Ah, but as we now know, Auburn was a different species. It was Clemson’s defense that dominated that day, collecting a season’s worth of sacks (11) in a single game. The untested quarterback thrust into the role of following a program’s most dynamic player maybe ever was more than an asterisk, though. Kelly, 19-of-29 passing, threw for 181 yards and led Clemson with 59 rushing yards.   

“Was he going to be able to make plays that you have to make in competitive games like that?” said Swinney, echoing the big question of the moment.

The answer, said the coach: “He made some big-time throws in that Auburn game. Because of that, his confidence started to take off.

“There’s no greater teacher than experience, especially a good experience. That’s what came from the Auburn game. He thought, ‘You know what, I can do this.’ He kind of took it from there.”

“That was a big moment for me just to see it all come together for us as an offense,” Bryant said earlier this week. “Just to be able to sit back and watch the film, and know, OK, I did that; I can overcome this; I know what I can do; let’s go showcase it every Saturday.”

Bryant has been knocked around a bit since Game Two. He always would be found wanting by those who hold the two-time Heisman finalist Watson as the standard. He was concussed in the first half against Syracuse, which perhaps not coincidentally turned out to be Clemson’s only loss to date. To bottom-line it, however, his team is 11-1 and no Tigers first-year starting quarterback has accumulated so many victories. No, not even dear Watson, who most recently took the Tigers to consecutive national championship games, winning it on his second attempt. 

Beat Miami Saturday in the ACC Championship, and Bryant will return the Tigers to the playoffs, as the top seed of the four finalists.

Not shabby for a bloke who had spent a couple seasons under-studying Watson and was commonly perceived as a player just killing time taking snaps until a better position came along. 

All Clemson knew coming into this season was that someone was going to have to step in for Watson, not the most enviable task. For the Tigers weren’t feeling so innovative that they were going to go with the no-quarterback set. 

The tall, sturdy junior from Calhoun Falls, S.C. was the pretzel in the snack mix, not the option you naturally reach for first. The Tigers had in waiting other highly-touted prospects in redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and five-star true freshman Hunter Johnson. So varied were the athletic gifts of the 6-4, 220-pound Bryant that people kept envisioning him at other jobs, like running back, safety or receiver, like cousin Martavis Bryant, lately of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“For the most part, everybody had him moving positions,” Swinney said. “Well he didn't quite get that memo.”

Bryant just kept showing up and showing off an irresistible skill set. He put distance between himself and all the other candidates from the first of spring, and nursed his lead into the fall. And before you know it, he became one of those stories of perseverance and self-belief that football so treasures. 

Watson always would be prominent in the background. In some ways, that can be a very good thing, as when Watson enthusiastically and prematurely tweeted earlier this season that Bryant was going to be better than he ever was. Just trying to open the valve on the pressure cooker a little. The two have stayed in semi-constant contact – “if not every week then every other week, just catching up, just small talk pretty much,” Bryant said. With the Houston Texans, Watson is now recovering from knee surgery.  

The shadow cast by his predecessor could be a total eclipse if Bryant allowed. So, his coach gave him the talk.

“Early on, right at the beginning of spring, it was the first time for him to be the guy and have to go out there and assert himself that way. That was a little different for him,” Swinney said. “Finally, I just told him, listen, I didn’t recruit you to be Deshaun Watson. I recruited you to be Kelly Bryant. That’s why we recruited you and offered you a scholarship because we felt like you had a skill set to be a great quarterback here and help us build a great offense. Don’t worry about anything else. I think he’s really embraced that.”

He is not Watson by the numbers, having put up none of the flashy passing stats that Watson did in his final Clemson season (4,593 yards and 41 touchdowns compared to Bryant’s 2,426 yards and 12 touchdowns thus far). But Bryant does give the Tigers a quarterback who can run inside for the tough yards as well as make people miss on the edge. He compliments a running game that Swinney says has made for an offense even more balanced than the one from a championship season.  

Attesting to his elusiveness: According to Pro Football Focus, Bryant has caused 28 missed tackles this season, which puts him in the league of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Georgia Tech’s TaQuon Marshall. 

The leadership quotient seems high enough, as well.

“He’s just different than Deshaun,” Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “A little more vocal, a little more confident at times. Deshaun was always reserved and poised, and Kelly is that way, too, just that in a different way.”

What else has stood out to Renfrow? “All year, just his toughness, taking more hits than Deshaun last year,” he said.

Having seen his team go for 30 or more points in four of the five games since losing to Syracuse, having witnessed his offense compensate for losses beyond Watson (like running back Wayne Gallman, receiver Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett), Bryant’s coach seems well pleased.

“I feel great (about the offense). We’re 11-1. We’ve made huge plays at critical times when we’ve had to have them. Been a lot of different guys who have made contributions. Been a good group to see develop,” Swinney said.

And there is the hint of better things yet to come this season, all that any quarterback of any rank could want. “We’re hitting our stride, playing the way we felt we should have been playing all season,” Bryant said.

So, yeah, thank you, Auburn.

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