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Clemson’s tough QB situation doesn’t call for second-guessing

Dabo Swinney and Kelly Bryant both made reasonable decisions, but the Tigers are now in a tricky situation.

USA Today Sports

At the end of 2017, Clemson’s quarterback depth chart was loaded. The Tigers had just made the Playoff with rising senior Kelly Bryant leading the offense. Behind him, they had a little bit of experience, loads of talent already on the roster, and more on the way:

  • Backup Zerrick Cooper, a former four-star recruit, had three years of eligibility left and had gotten some action in 2017.
  • Five-star Hunter Johnson, the No. 2 pro-style passer in the 2017 class, had just redshirted during his true freshman year.
  • Three-star Chase Brice, the No. 17 pro-style passer in the same class, had also redshirted.
  • Five-star Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall recruit in the country and the top-rated recruit anywhere since 2009, was about to sign and join the program.

In the first nine months of 2018, the QB depth chart has disintegrated.

Cooper transferred right after the season to FCS Jacksonville State.

Johnson transferred in the spring to Northwestern, where he’s sitting out this season.

That left Bryant and Lawrence in a two-man race for the starting job. They shared the field for four games, and then the inevitable happened before Week 5: Dabo Swinney decided his QB of the future was his QB of now and named Lawrence the starter. In addition to having off-the-charts natural talent, Lawrence is the ideal fit for his offense.

The story then became college football’s biggest drama.

Bryant announced his intent to transfer, using the NCAA’s new four-game redshirt rule to spare his last year of eligibility and play somewhere else in 2019.

Days later, Lawrence got hurt in the first half of his first start, when his head collided with a Syracuse defender. He’s expected back.

The last man standing in the pre-2018 conversation was Brice. He replaced Lawrence and led a gutty comeback win. Syracuse looks pretty good, and the Tigers had to win with the guy who was expected to be their millionth-string QB only a few months ago. Brice made a few critical throws to make it possible.

Behind Brice are preferred walk-on Ben Batson and receiver Hunter Renfrow. Until Lawrence is back, Clemson’s currently down to one healthy QB whom most teams would deem an acceptable starter.

Naturally, when Lawrence got hurt, discussions on TV and online immediately shifted to Bryant: could he return? Would he?

The first question has a simple answer: yes. On Saturday, Bryant was still enrolled at Clemson. It didn’t appear he’d taken any kind of scholarship money from any other school. If he and Clemson both want a reunion, there was no logistical hurdle standing in their way.

The second question — would he return? — was more complicated. Dabo Swinney told ESPN’s Holly Rowe when she asked about a Bryant return: “Heck yeah. I love that kid.”

But it seems that’s not happening:

Bryant is poised to have a lot of options as he apparently goes elsewhere.

Bryant has a business decision in front of him. But his decision was fair, and he’s taken lots of unfair flack from outside the program.

Swinney’s message has been clear — that he respects Bryant’s decision and loves him. He’s said Clemson will move on without him while leaving the door open for a return.

ESPN’s booth announcers for the Syracuse game, Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge, cast Bryant’s transfer decision as a betrayal of his teammates. They posited that Bryant made a mistake by leaving. After all, he’d have been playing post-Lawrence injury. Blackledge called it “selfish.”

Rivals’ Mike Farrell wrote that Bryant “screwed his teammates:”

I didn’t like the way Bryant said it was like a “slap in the face” to get benched for a quarterback that is clearly better and more talented and the way he attacked his former coach, Dabo Swinney, in a roundabout way. After all, Swinney could have started Bryant against Syracuse, ended any chance he had to redshirt and continue his career, and then bench him the next game.

But the Clemson coach did the right thing for his player and shouldn’t have received some of the venom spit his way. The bottom line is this: In this “mamby pamby” world we live in, where quarterbacks can’t handle any adversity and transfer the moment things get rough, I’m getting tired. Clemson has a chance to win a national title this year and Bryant could still be a big part of that. His teammates were counting on him and despite any public support have to feel a bit betrayed and abandoned by his actions. So, red flag him NFL teams, and buyer beware when it comes to a transfer, because there’s no guarantee he won’t quit on the next team he plays for as well.

A related opinion:

One illogical extension of this argument is that Clemson shouldn’t take Bryant back. It will often come with a stated worry about what kind of message that sends to the rest of the team and to America’s youth everywhere about sticking with it. That Rowe even had to ask Swinney if he’d take Bryant back is a commentary on how big this camp of moralizers is.

Let’s make this simple.

  • Bryant is good.
  • He wasn’t wrong to want to maximize his career somewhere else.
  • Swinney wasn’t wrong for wanting to start Lawrence.
  • Clemson has one healthy scholarship QB.
  • If Bryant had wanted to come back, Clemson should and probably would have rolled out the red carpet.
  • It’s also totally fine if Bryant and Clemson are split up for good, as it appears they are.