SUNSET, S.C.—The person that is at the center of the most talked about battle on the Clemson football team met with the media for his one, and only, availability this season.
And while many were looking for a nugget or a slip of the tongue that may give away who would be the person to take over the reins from former quarterback Deshaun Watson this season, quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter was having none of it as he toed the company line and reiterated what was said after the spring—or did he.
“The quarterback battle is the same as it was right after spring ball. If we played today it would be Kelly Bryant,” Streeter said. “He’s done a great job of having a good summer. He’s done a great job of gaining his confidence. He had a really good spring and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him and he continues to get better, and that’s obviously what we’re looking for.
“It’s not all said and done though yet, because we still have 30 or so practices left—which is plenty of practice for some younger guys to catch up and we’ll see how it goes. Right now, it’s Kelly Bryant going into preseason, and he’ll take the first snap out there, but we’ve got some young ones that are doing really well. They’re still getting acclimated to the system, still learning.”
The battle between the quarterbacks has shifted since the end of the spring, to—by most accounts—a two-man race between first-team quarterback Bryant and true freshman Hunter Johnson.
For Johnson, the first couple of weeks of spring practice were a blur. From the Tigers installing their offense, to going to college classes, to study halls—Johnson’s head was spinning by the time the Tigers broke camp for their weeklong spring break.
But now, Streeter says that the light has come on for the true freshman and the game is starting to slow down.
“He’s doing a really good job. At that age, when you come in and you’re still supposed to be in high school—you’re asking a lot of someone to try to learn the playbook and absorb it in a couple of weeks of spring practice,” Streeter said. “So, with all of those young guys it’s just a matter of experience and getting thrown in there and getting reps. And he was able to do that in the spring, and kind of like what I was saying earlier—I think the thing for him will be absorbing what he learned in the spring and kind of regurgitating everything throughout the whole summer, and that’s what he’s been doing.
“I talked to him yesterday (Monday) and he said that he feels 100-percent better than he did during spring break. You know, during spring break we were halfway through our spring practice and, I mean, he was spinning like crazy just trying to figure everything out. And now, because he’s been able to go through it a million times in his mind, in the playbook and on video—watching himself in practice from the spring and learning, learning and learning. That’s the next step, and that’s what hopefully he’s been able to do and we’ll see here in preseason and we’ll see how he’s improved.”
While many people may not put Hunter Johnson’s athletic ability on par with some of the dual-threat quarterback’s that have played at Clemson—Tajh Boyd, Woody Dantzler and, most recently, the greatest of all-time Deshaun Watson—the former high school track star is turning the heads of the people that matter the most—his coaches.
“He’s a great athlete. He’s as athletic as Deshaun Watson,” Streeter said. “He’s a track guy in high school, and that was a big reason why we recruited him. Because he has mobility, and he can escape the pocket. He can throw on the run. Is just a really, really good athlete that we’re excited about to see how he blossoms and how he fits into this system.”
“I think it’s to protect the quarterback and how do you do that? Well, you can’t go in there and game plan like you did with Deshaun, because he was a proven guy. But, there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of confidence with the talent that we have in the room. It’s just, how are they going to be with the with the lack of experience and how are they going to be at the beginning of the season going into a real game situation.
“You can protect him by a lot of different things—easier passes, run the ball more and do whatever he does best. Whoever that guy is. Whatever they do best, just really, really hone in on that. And the good thing about our playbook, we have a big playbook, but we can put them in a great situation based on what their talents are. So, whoever that quarterback is, we’re able to take out of that playbook what they thrive in and really just gain that confidence and try to help that kid have confidence with a surrounding cast that we already have.”
“He’s a great athlete. He’s as athletic as Deshaun Watson. He’s a track guy in high school, and that was a big reason why we recruited him. Because he has mobility, and he can escape the pocket. He can throw on the run. Is just a really, really good athlete that we’re excited about to see how he blossoms and how he fits into this system.”
But even with all of the attention shifting toward Johnson, for Streeter it is the No. 1 guy, Kelly Bryant, that will have a huge role on the Tigers success this season—whether or not he ultimately wins the starting job.
“He’s going to be a big part of this thing no matter what happens. He’s going to be a huge part of our success,” Streeter said. “No matter what happens at the quarterback spot, but by him having that natural leadership ability that people are attracted to definitely helps—whether he’s the guy or not.
“He can influence people whether he’s the starting quarterback or he’s the backup quarterback—he’s going to be a guy that is going to influence this football team, whether offensively or defensively just because of his personality”
The quarterback battle may very well rage into the season, and if that is the case, it brings up a phrase, as there can only be one quarterback on the field at a time, the Tigers are not used to—two-quarterback system.
And even though there are both positives and negatives, it is becoming a real possibility for the Tigers, because it is up to the coaches to ensure that the players that earn playing time get playing time.
“That’s very much a possibility, that very well could happen. I think there’s good things about that and there’s not so good things about that,” Streeter said. “I think, sometimes when you have that one quarterback and everybody knows who that quarterback is—everyone can rally around that guy.
“When you have two, it’s a little bit harder to do that, but I do think with our culture and our coaching staff and our team that we have—I don’t think it’s a big issue with two guys playing. We haven’t even gotten that far, because we still have so much practice to get in this preseason camp. But it’s not out of the realm. And if these guys earn it, and deserve to play, then we’ll find a way to get them on the field.”