Kelly Bryant

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) follows the block of Taylor Hearn (51) and Adam Choice (26) during a run against South Carolina. Bryant is the winningest first-year starting quarterback in Clemson history — leading his team to an 11-1 regular season, a third consecutive ACC Championship Game appearance and a No. 1 ranking to end the regular season. More photos at TheTandD.com.

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CLEMSON — When Kelly Bryant thinks back through the first 12 games of his career as the starting quarterback for the Clemson Tigers there are sure to be at least a few possibilities of what could be described as a “defining moment.”

The moment when he knew he could lead the Tigers came for many around the country when former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson tweeted during the third game of the season at Louisville, “He will be better than me.” But for Bryant, the moment of realization came a week earlier, under the lights of Death Valley, vs. the Auburn Tigers.

“It had to be the Auburn game, just the second game of the year. You know I think it was GameDay, everybody was looking at it, and the defense that they had is a really well-coached defense,” Bryant said. “They had a really great set of guys. We didn't score a lot of points but we were moving the ball up and down the field, and I was making plays with my arm. The offensive line was blocking really well against a great front. …

“Just looking back on it, I feel like that was where I began to get in my rhythm. My confidence began to grow from that weekend on into the season. For me it was really big. It was really big for me as a confidence booster.”

Bryant did not enter the fall with anyone outside of the coaching staff believing he would end the season as the starting quarterback — with redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and five-star true freshman Hunter Johnson poised to take over for the departed Watson.

But Bryant did not listen to the naysayers. Instead he went out every day in the spring and the summer and in the fall and won the job. He wasn’t given the job, according to head coach Dabo Swinney, “He won it.”

Even after the Tigers notched their first win of the season in dominant fashion, 56-3 over Kent State, many pundits were still adamant that it would only be a matter of time before Bryant either found another position to play or transferred out of the program.

“Nobody had more pressure on them than Kelly Bryant,” Swinney said. “For the most part, everybody had him moving positions. He wasn't going to play quarterback. He was going to be a wide-out, he was going to be a safety, he was going to be this, he was going to be a running back -- just wondering what position he was going to play. Well he didn't quite get that memo. It's just great to see young people prepare and develop.”

And develop he did into the winningest first-year starting quarterback in Clemson history — leading his team to an 11-1 regular season, a third consecutive ACC Championship Game appearance and a No. 1 ranking to end the regular season.

It is the confidence of the coaching staff that Bryant believes played a big part in his success on the field this season, even when the fans wanted to see someone else.

“I feel like each week I've grown more confident in myself as a quarterback,” Bryant said. “A lot of people wanting to question whether I could throw the ball because not many people saw me win games where I had to throw the ball because when I was going into games were a little out of hand, so it was usually just handing the ball off to the running back or some designed quarterback runs.

“Like I said, as the season went on, I'm feeling a confidence there and I'm feeling confident in this team, and as the coaches believed in me as the season progressed to get the job done.

While Bryant having cemented his place as the Tigers’ starting quarterback and leader, his focus is now on winning an ACC title and having a chance to defend last year’s national championship with a berth in the College Football Playoff.

“It's going to be a special moment. It's the ACC Championship Game,” Bryant said. “There's a trophy on the line. There's a lot on the line. But just being in the stadium with a bunch of great players that have played on that field, whether it's been in a championship game or the NFL, so it's going to be special.”

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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