Clemson’s Swinney not worried despite several QB transfers
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not concerned about his quarterback spot, even though the once-loaded depth at the position has been cut in half.
When the Tigers ended last season, the Atlantic Coast Conference champions appeared more than set behind center with Kelly Bryant returning as starter and three experienced backups who’d been through Clemson’s system in Zerrick Cooper, Tucker Israel and Hunter Johnson.
And the cherry on top of the sundae was five-star recruit Trevor Lawrence, the country’s top college prospect who surpassed the Georgia state high school marks of Clemson’s national championship-winning passer Deshaun Watson.
But with fall camp about six weeks away, Clemson will enter practices with only Bryant and Lawrence left after Cooper, Israel and Johnson all transferred.
Freshman Chase Brice, who redshirted last season, also returns at quarterback.
Cooper and Israel played two years with the Tigers before leaving last January. Johnson, a five-star prospect from last year’s class, left in May after going through spring workouts.
“We’ve still got good depth,” Swinney said. “Now we’ve got three that I think we can win with. We had four that I felt like we could win with. Now we’ve got three.”
Clemson has not relied much on its quarterback depth in recent years.
Tajh Boyd started all 40 games for the Tigers from 2011-13. Watson was the ironman in 2015 and 2016, starting all 30 games on the way to two College Football Playoff appearances and the national title two years ago. Bryant took over last fall to start all 14 games and take Clemson to its third straight ACC crown and CFP trip.
Cooper and Israel sat behind Watson and Bryant and chose to continue playing elsewhere. Cooper left for Jacksonville State, while Israel has not landed anywhere yet.
While Bryant returns for his senior season, the future seems to belong to Lawrence, the long-haired, strong-armed passer coaches have raved about since the moment he stepped on campus. Johnson, from Brownsburg, Indiana, was rated the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2017 by ESPN and figured to have the best shot at holding off Lawrence as Bryant’s prime backup.
But Lawrence electrified fans at Clemson’s spring game in April, throwing a perfect 50-yard TD pass on his second play. “You couldn’t start any better than that,” Swinney said.
Johnson saw what was happening, finished the semester and announced his choice to move. He will join Northwestern in the fall, in part helped by Swinney, who called Wildcats coach and friend Pat Fitzgerald to put in a pitch for Johnson. “We’re going to miss him, but we wish him well,” Swinney said. “Know he’s in a good place where he can achieve.”
Swinney said he’ll move freshman defensive back Ben Batson to quarterback to add to the team’s depth for the fall. Batson was a dual-threat quarterback in high school who Swinney says can handle the position in college.
Bryant has proven durable and essential. Clemson’s lone loss last year came when Bryant was knocked out with a concussion in the second quarter at Syracuse. The Tigers had the following week off and Bryant retuned to play the rest of the season.
Lawrence already is a fan favorite because of his poise, talent and similarity to Watson, who also liked to pass downfield. Bryant is a strong runner who is sometimes off-target on long passes.
Still, it was Bryant atop the quarterback depth chart last month — and will stay that way when practice resumes in August.
“We’re in a good spot,” Swinney said. “There’s a lot of people out there that don’t have one good one. We’ve got three good ones. We’ll let them battle it out and see who’s going to lead the Tigers. I think it’ll work out great.”
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