Clemson should have a quarterback controversy right now.
In one corner, proven senior Kelly Bryant just stewarded the Tigers to the Playoff despite not putting up great passing stats. In the other, five-star true freshman Trevor Lawrence was the most hyped QB recruit this decade but has almost no college experience.
Bryant is the starter, and Lawrence might or might not overtake him by season’s end. But the top of the Tigers’ depth chart doesn’t feel like a dramatic battleground. It feels like it gives them all the dimensions they’ll need to make another run to a title game.
Lawrence is knocking on the door, but Bryant brings things the all-world freshman doesn’t (for now).
In 2017, Bryant was an average passer. He was 60th nationally in rating and 70th in yards per throw, right in the middle of the ACC in both those stats.
We don’t know yet how much Bryant’s improved in 2018, but Week 2 at Texas A&M was the best passing game of his career: 12-of-17 for 205 yards (a 12.1 average) and a TD. He tacked on 14 non-sack runs for 62 yards. If Bryant posts a 191 rating every week, he’ll win the Heisman.
Still, two critical things are Bryant’s bread and butter: a) using his legs to run or create the threat of the run, freeing up Clemson’s other weapons, and b) being smart with the ball. In 2017, Bryant was Clemson’s leading rusher with sacks filtered out (5.1 yards per carry), and he threw an interception just every 50 passes (eight picks in total). The national average was a pick every 36 passes.
Lawrence is as talented as any QB in the country, but he’s ultra-lanky at 6’6, 215 pounds. He’s not ideally built to take hits all night in the QB run game, and even the best freshman QB in the world is more of a turnover risk than a ball-security specialist like Bryant.
Bryant doesn’t have a golden arm. No problem, because Clemson doesn’t usually ask him to push the ball downfield.
Most of his throws don’t travel more than 5 yards in the air or so beyond the line of scrimmage. The most common pass Bryant makes is a throw to the flat when Clemson has favorable numbers. It might not even travel beyond the line, but there’s no chance it’ll become a turnover, and that’s plenty, when you have Clemson’s defense.
The 2017 Tigers were 18th in Success Rate (an efficiency stat) and 119th in IsoPPP (explosiveness). Having Bryant mainly throw short passes and run zone reads like this ...
... gives Clemson a high floor. He’s a skilled runner who’ll retain possessions. And without a field-position boost, good luck scoring enough on the Tigers’ D.
When the box score shows a chunk gain on a Bryant pass, there’s a good chance it’s because he got off a quick, accurate ball to a great athlete:
Bryant occasionally airs it out. Against A&M, he had completions of 64 and 40 yards on deep shots, including a well-thrown lob on the move to slot receiver Hunter Renfrow:
He had one other deep-ball success in that game, a 50-yarder to five-star sophomore Tee Higgins, though that one was under-thrown and required an uncalled Higgins push-off.
Clemson is in its comfort zone when Bryant and company are moving slowly and safely. When that opens up chances to take big gains, great.
“As this game wore on, I thought it became more obvious that this is KB’s team. For the time being anyways. He made plays with his legs and his arm. Yes, he made some down the field throws too. Big ones. Without KB2, I’m not sure we’re sitting at 2-0 today,” Shakin’ the Southland wrote.
No matter how quickly Lawrence’s game rounds out, he’s already good enough to give the Tigers a better deep passing game.
Co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have immediately let Lawrence spread his wings. On the freshman’s first play against A&M, near the start of the second quarter, Lawrence dropped in a dime for Higgins, who went up and got it before running for a 64-yard TD:
We still haven’t seen a lot of Lawrence in college, but that he throws a gorgeous deep ball isn’t in dispute. His arm was legendary in recruiting circles:
He profiles like the ideal downfield passer: tall, strong, and fearless.
Lawrence also flashed good timing and arm strength on this back-shoulder throw to Diondre Overton, even if he put the ball a bit more inside than he probably wanted:
Both QBs do fine at what the other’s known for. But their contrasting styles could make a two-QB system the best option as Lawrence develops.
“We want to continue to get Trevor in the game,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s a special player, but we love what we see from Kelly. I think both of those guys can help our football team.
“If something really changes and separates, where we have way more confidence in one guy, then you could see an adjustment somewhere down the road, but honestly I hope they will both play well with their opportunity. And if they do that, I don’t see a situation where they can’t [both] continue to play.”
Lawrence might not be ready to carry Clemson on his own yet. The offense averaged 18 yards on the five drives he led in College Station, a figure driven down by the combined zero yards it gained on two three-and-outs with Lawrence to start the second half. Aside from his 64-yard TD to Higgins, Lawrence was 4-of-8 for 29 yards, with two runs for -1 yard.
On the other hand, Bryant could lead a title run. He almost did last year. His style is designed to keep Clemson from playing from behind and let a brawling defense do a lot of the heavy lifting.
But if the Tigers find themselves in need of a jolt, Lawrence has showed he can give it.