Sapakoff: Clemson play-callers Elliott, Scott are up to the post-Watson challenge
CLEMSON – Deshaun Watson as a college quarterback would have made any “Bachelorette” contestant look like a genius play-caller.
Clemson’s national championship winning, two-time Heisman Trophy finalist also had some consistently productive friends. Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Jordan Leggett and Wayne Gallman have gone to the NFL, too.
That makes 2017 a seemingly daunting challenge for offensive co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. Except that Clemson’s dynamic duo has leaped over tall buildings (and forced mixed superhero metaphors) before:
• The debut with a second-string quarterback against a favored foe. Elliott and Scott replaced Chad Morris after their innovative mentor left to become head coach at SMU just a few weeks before the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl. With Watson sidelined by knee surgery, Cole Stoudt was the quarterback against Oklahoma. Clemson won, 40-6.
• That first full regular season. Clemson went undefeated into the College Football Playoff in 2015 and averaged 38.5 points per game for the season.
• ACC Championship Games. A 45-37 win over North Carolina, then 42-35 over Virginia Tech.
• College Football Playoffs. Two national title game appearances, a championship, 550 and 511 yards of total offense against Nick Saban’s Alabama defenses.
There were common threads.
“It’s a core fundamental of our program that we start over every year,” said Elliott, a James Island High School graduate. “We don’t rest on our laurels and we know that each offense is going to pose a new challenge and a new identity. It’s our jobs as coaches to find out what our guys can do.”
Watson still helping
The main thing we know about junior quarterback Kelly Bryant – Clemson’s designated starter for the Sept. 2 opener against Kent State – is that he’s thrown only one college touchdown pass. And that came in a 59-0 victory over S.C. State.
Of course, recruiting is always a big part of the puzzle, and Elliott and Scott do their share in making in-game adjustments easier with off-field salesmanship.
If Bryant stumbles, options include freshman Hunter Johnson, ESPN’s top-rated quarterback in the high school class of 2017, and redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper, who looked sharp in the spring. A committee approach to 2017 is more than possible. Just wait and see who is at quarterback in the critical final minutes against Auburn on Sept. 9.
Trevor Lawrence, the top quarterback prospect in the 2018 class, is on the way.
Despite the billings, there probably isn’t a two-time Heisman finalist in the bunch.
And the system – any system – only goes so far. The Chad Morris approach greatly contributed to Tajh Boyd’s status as an outstanding college quarterback. Watson was way more than a system quarterback, which is why he was an NFL first-round draft pick and Boyd a sixth-rounder (2014) who didn’t make a regular-season roster.
But Elliott points out that Watson is still helping Clemson in two critical ways:
• Bryant was privy to Watson’s work ethic.
• Watson’s elevated command helped Clemson transition from “what Chad Morris was doing to what Jeff and I are doing.”
More fun pressure
That comfort with the system, Elliott said, means the co-coordinators don’t work three times as many hours to build strategy around three quarterbacks.
“Each guy has to operate the system,” Elliott said. “Even Deshaun, early in his career, had to learn the system and adapt to what he was comfortable with and then as he got older and acquired more knowledge, than we expanded a little bit.”
If life without Watson is scary for some Clemson fans, note that Elliott, 37, and Scott, 36, don’t look unusually worried.
“Even as coaches we are trying to figure out what the identity of this offense is,” Scott said. “But that’s what makes it fun.”
They had the same spirit before facing Oklahoma in Orlando and Nick Saban in national championship games.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff