Clemson Spring Game: Bryant Clemson’s starter, but rising Lawrence making waves
Hunter Renfrow can’t walk anywhere around Clemson without the same topic quickly coming up: What’s happening at quarterback?
“It’s all people want to know about, all the time,” said the Tigers’ senior receiver.
That’s an odd situation for Clemson given it returns a starter in Kelly Bryant who led the team to 12 wins, its third straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship and another spot in the College Football Playoff.
The excitement is all about long-haired freshman Trevor Lawrence, the top high-school quarterback in last year’s recruiting cycle according to ESPN who enrolled early at Clemson and has excited coaches and teammates with his ability. And Lawrence put on a show Saturday for rabid fans with a perfectly thrown 50-yard TD pass to receiver Tee Higgins in Clemson’s spring game for the Orange squad in a 28-17 win over the White team.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said the 6-foot-6 Lawrence — who some have dubbed “Sunshine” after South Carolina’s long-haired quarterback Ronnie Bass as depicted in “Remember The Titans” — has all the tools of former Clemson star Deshaun Watson but is more physically developed as a freshman.
It’s a package of power and panache that has many Clemson fans swooning for more national titles — and discarding Bryant’s one stellar year.
Everyone, perhaps, except for Swinney and Bryant.
Swinney said there’ll be no earth-shaking, upcoming pronouncement about Clemson’s starting quarterback. It’s Bryant.
“He’s the returning starter for us. He started 14 games. That’s where we are,” Swinney said. “Unless something changes, then there’s an announcement. But other than that there’s no announcement to make.”
Bryant understood what was coming this spring and pledged to work hard to improve his game and keep Clemson on top.
“Everybody wants to write me off,” Bryant said. “But I’m still here and I ain’t going nowhere.”
Clemson fans had grown accustomed to fast-paced offenses led by dynamic, passing quarterbacks since 2011. Tajh Boyd set records as the Tigers starter from 2011-13 before the strong-armed Watson came in and, after an injury plagued freshman season, passed Clemson to a 28-2 mark in 2015 and 2016, two ACC titles and the national championship his final year.
Bryant led more a run-based attack and was sometimes criticized for misfires when passing. Clemson’s total yards of 6,014 were lower than all but one of the last seven seasons. Its 3,297 yards passing was the fewest since 2010. The Tigers 17 touchdown passes were also their lowest in seven years.
Part of last year, Swinney said, was having so many first-year starters on offense after playmakers like Watson, receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, tailback Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett left for the NFL.
There was a learning curve all the first-timers, like Bryant, had to battle.
This spring, the offense has worked on increasing tempo and — with Bryant in charge — have regularly gotten the better of Clemson’s experienced defense.
That doesn’t mean coaches have not been wowed by Lawrence’s star power. The freshman broke Watson’s Georgia state prep records for career yardage (13,908) and touchdowns (161).
Those numbers, his winning (55-2 record at Cartersville High) and even the hair have captivated fan imaginations, co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
“I think with what he was able to accomplish as a high school play, just the winning, how he put his team on his back,” Elliot said.
Lawrence won the spring game stats battle, completing 11 of 16 passes for 122 yards Bryant threw for 35 yards on 8-of-15 passing.
Clemson’s faced spring drama in the quarterback spot before. Before Watson’s freshman year, senior Cole Stoudt and sophomore Chad Kelly were fighting for the starting spot after Boyd’s departure — and seeing firsthand how talented Watson was. But Kelly snapped at the coaches on the sidelines during the spring game, and then two days later was dismissed from the team.
Stoudt opened the year as the starter, but was surpassed by Watson in week three at Florida State.
Swinney does not want a similar back-and-forth this offseason.
“We’ve got a starter right now,” he said. “Kelly’s our starter.”