clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is 5-star Hunter Johnson Clemson’s Deshaun Watson replacement? And how soon?

Clemson’s next QB (whoever he is) has massive shoes to fill.

The Clemson Tigers have now achieved the pinnacle of college football triumph in winning a national title over a supremely hyped and respected foe. Now they reach the hardest stage of climbing to the top: staying there.

It doesn’t appear to matter who’s back on defense in a given year for Clemson, but as it happens, the Tigers return many of the key players from yet another brilliant unit in 2016. But on offense, they lose running back Wayne Gallman, receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett, and all-world quarterback Deshaun Watson. That’s nearly every key offensive skill component from their two-year Playoff run and takedown of Alabama in the 2017 title game.

Clemson didn’t sign a big 2017 recruiting class, but it did sign some excellent prospects. The Tiger offense might need them next season.

How much has really been lost?

Watson, Leggett and Williams each provided distinctive advantages for the Tigers that are really hard to replace. Leggett was a big, mobile asset that allowed Clemson to vacillate between spread and power run formations, and who was a can’t-miss target running routes in the seams. Williams was another can’t-miss target outside the hash marks who made it difficult to handle Clemson’s inside passing and run game due to the threat he posed if left alone with a cornerback.

And of course, Watson was the straw that stirred the drink. In addition to being highly effective as a pocket passer, Watson negated some of the challenges of building good pass protection units at the college level with his scrambling ability, and he also allowed the Tigers to run a variety of option and QB run plays that were a trump card when Clemson wanted to run the ball. His diverse skill set unlocked potential up and down the roster, making the Tigers a difficult team to package and call defenses against. Just ask Nick Saban.

What has been lost, then, is not only a cast of players with multiple seasons of repetitions working together, but also some unique and physically dominant talents. The chances of just plugging in another Deshaun Watson in 2017 are next to zero.

What’s next for the Clemson O?

Clemson has a few quarterbacks on campus now vying for the role of “Watson replacement.” The leading contender is former three-star recruit Kelly Bryant, who has yet to demonstrate anything close to the passing chops of Watson. The next is redshirt freshman-to-be Zerrick Cooper. Cooper is a former four-star himself, who also has some questions about his accuracy and passing acumen, along with less mobility than Bryant.

Then there’s the chance that five-star early enrollee freshman Hunter Johnson comes in and takes the job like Jalen Hurts did at Alabama this past season. The reason Johnson is rated as a five-star recruit is his skill at exactly what Bryant and Cooper have failed to show excellence in: throwing accuracy.

With only Hunter Renfrow and the offensive line returning, there’s no established identity for the next Clemson offense to assume. There isn’t a dominant skill athlete returning from the title team who needs to be featured, nor is there an established QB. What Clemson does have is a highly skilled possession WR (Renfrow) and an OL that was solid in pass protection but rather average in the run game.

Now the Clemson offensive staff has to determine whether it has skill players rising up who are ready to be prominent components of the team’s identity, if the OL can be developed to become a more fearsome run blocking unit, or whether it should just choose the best all-around QB and build from there.

If the Tigers determine that the passing game needs to be the primary focus, they may choose to roll with Johnson. If they determine that he’s the best all-around QB, then obviously they’ll make that same decision.

He’ll have a lot of competition, though, and only more in the future. Four-star Chase Brice is joining Johnson in the 2017 class, and 2018’s current No. 1 overall prospect, QB Trevor Lawrence, is verbally committed to the Tigers, too.

Johnson is a top-flight prospect for a reason.

Johnson was a three-year starter at Brownsburg, in Indiana. He went 15-15 over those three years, with a run at the state title as a senior that fell short in the first round of the tournament. His team was largely built around his skills as a passer, and it was schematically similar to the 2015 Bama team that beat Clemson for the title.

His rating comes largely from his supreme mechanics and ability to throw lasers into windows outside of the hash marks. The ability to throw the perfect pass to big targets was how Clemson took down Alabama, and you can find examples of Johnson doing it from his sophomore year on.

When Johnson has a clear read on the defense, he can put a ball in the perfect spot to either beat coverage (like at the 0:46 mark in the above video) or turn upfield and pick up yards after the catch (see 1:13). It’s rare to see a high school player with such well-developed throwing mechanics and accuracy combined with arm strength to allow him to utilize those skills to threaten so much of the field.

However, that world-beating accuracy also rears its head in some of the decision-making on the part of Johnson. He threw 12 picks in both his junior and senior seasons and compiled the following stats in his three years of high school signal-calling:

Neither the yardage numbers nor the INT rate would be elite or particularly impressive against college defenses, as you can see from comparison. The interception issue could be a result of Johnson leaning too heavily on his ability to beat coverage with accuracy and thus taking ill-advised shots. Watson sometimes did that, too, after all.

Indeed, the first shot of Johnson’s senior film features him throwing a corner route despite the cornerback sinking deep with the route and the flat route consequently being left wide open. He beats the cornerback with a well-placed ball for a TD, and the fight song rolls. But obviously, you can end up throwing a few picks at the high school level doing that and a good deal more trying to beat Florida State’s DBs.

Then there’s the Clemson run game, which is loaded with spread-option concepts that include QB pass or keep/run reads, as well as some single-wing runs the Tigers used for Watson. At 6’2 and about 200 pounds, Johnson isn’t currently built to carry the ball as often as Watson did, but he could still be a major boon to the Clemson run game in a few ways.

You can find some examples of Johnson running the old-school triple-option as well as some zone-read in high school and doing it quite well. He ran a remarkably quick 4.09 in the shuttle with a 4.73 in the 40-yard dash, which both indicate some serious speed to reach the open field and then chew up grass.

As he gains weight, he could be highly capable in some of the same power runs that Clemson used to spring Watson. Itern the meantime, he should be the kind of player that defenses have to game-plan for on the zone-read taking the edge.

Where he can really tear things up, though, is in the run-pass option game. Brownsburg loved to attach pass options to its runs and watch opponents try to handle its inside run plays while trying to cover up passing windows to the flats and keeping their safeties over the top:

It’s not terribly common for high school defenses to determine that the threat of a quick pass to the flat is a greater threat for the outside LB to worry about than getting up front to provide numbers against the run. But that’s the calculation that Johnson’s opponents regularly made due to his accuracy on those quick pass reads.

If you’re hitting them with accuracy, the RPO constraint is the most deadly for the spread run game, because you force defenses to determine if they want to deal with a guy that can score getting the ball in space, or having enough numbers to “stop the run!” as every DC emphatically stresses at every practice and press conference.

Johnson has a chance to contribute quickly.

If he can use spring practice and the coming offseason to master the reads of the Clemson offense, his throwing ability might provide the best foundation for the 2017 Clemson offense of any QB on campus. If not, Clemson may still have snagged a player who can help it eventually recreate its national championship formula.