Clemson coach Dabo Swinney no longer hears questions about whether his Tigers can contend for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. Not after three straight trips to the College Football Playoff, topped by a national title in 2016.
It’s understood Clemson is among the favorites — if not the frontrunner — for a fourth straight ACC title. Swinney, finishing his first decade as head coach after he was elevated from interim to full credentials in the 2009 season, can set the message, placing the onus on the players.
He’s earned the credibility to set the post-spring message with his recent success: a 40-4 record from 2015 through 2017: 14-1, 14-1 and 12-2. Do the math: That’s an 83.3 winning percentage.
His message, subtly directed at the quarterbacks among his 15 returning starters, was off-season work will have more to do with determining a 2018 starter than fall camp.
“I’m excited about the summer and the opportunity for this team to take another big step forward,” Swinney said. “The chemistry is really what I think the team develops the most, really gets prepared for the season.”
The Tigers’ Kelly Bryant is the returning starter, but the redshirt senior is facing a challenge from Trevor Lawrence, a 5-star recruit that graduated to enroll early for spring ball.
For now, Swinney has said Bryant remains the starter despite Lawrence’s strong spring. Lawrence, the No. 2 recruit in the nation, was so impressive he apparently has leapfrogged Hunter Johnson, who was Bryant’s backup last year.
It was just a year ago Johnson was highly touted true freshman that arrived as the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation. That’s how quickly depth charts can change in this era of top recruits – in football and basketball — following each other like lemmings to a handful of schools they believe has the best chance to win a national title.
In the ACC conference call to wrap up spring drills, Swinney also dubiously threw Chase Brice, who redshirted as a freshman last year, into the mix. That shows you how vague he wants to remain for now.
“Well, we’ve got a really good situation,” Swinney said. “Never had quite this type of situation where we’ve got really four guys that I think could go win with, literally. I think we could go win with any of those guys. I think they’re all really working hard to be the best version of themselves. They’re all at different spots.”
Bryant’s grasp on the starting job began to slip as he struggled late in the 2017 season, particularly in the Tigers’ 24-6 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal game.
Anticipation began to bubble up for Lawrence’s arrival, and he heightened expectations by outplaying Bryant in the spring game. The Orange, with Lawrence and Johnson sharing snaps, defeated the White, with Bryant and Brice, by a score of 28-17.
Bryant was only 8-of-15 passing for 35 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also finished with four rushes for minus-3 yards.
Lawrence was 11-of-16 passing for 122 yards with one touchdown pass and no interceptions. He completed a 50-yard touchdown toss to Tee Higgins that included reading the defense to find Higgins as his third option. But on the ground, Clemson’s defense was rough on Lawrence, too, limiting him to seven rushes for minus-23 yards.
Now what, Dabo?
“They all had some great moments in the spring; they all had some not so great,” Swinney said. “It’s a very good situation. Kind of like some other positions on our team where we’ve got very, very good depth, very competitive depth. So should be fun. Obviously, Kelly’s won a conference and taken us to the playoffs, and he’s got great experience.”
Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, started all 14 games last year, compiling 3,467 total yards. He completed 262-of-398 passes (65.8 percent) for 2,802 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was third on the team in rushing yards with 665 yards and 11 touchdowns, with a long run of 79.
Lawrence (6-6, 209) is a five-star prospect from Cartersville, Ga. As a senior, he broke the Georgia state high school record of Deshaun Watson, with 3,904 passing yards and 51 touchdowns with one interception.
Watson, of course, led Clemson to back-to-back national championship games, losing to Alabama in 2015 and winning in 2016. He declared for the NFL after his junior season and the Houston Texans took him in the first round.
In 2014, Watson arrived from Gainesville, Ga., a highly recruited quarterback to join a roster that featured a returning starter, Cole Staudt. Watson took over as the starter by the third game, although hand and knee injuries limited him to five starts for the season.
It’s a leap to project anyone as the next Deshaun Watson – he was a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up that arguably should have won it in 2015 over Alabama running back Derrick Henry (if not also in 2016 over Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson – but Clemson fans can take comfort.
They know Swinney has a track record for making the right call.