CLEMSON — Most teams would love to have a Heisman Trophy candidate that led their team to a No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season, won the school’s third consecutive conference title and led their team to a third straight College Football Playoff appearance returning at quarterback.
And that is exactly what the Clemson Tigers have in rising senior quarterback Kelly Bryant.
Bryant finished the 2017 season as one of 11 finalists for the Manning Award, one of 16 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Award, completed 262 passes for 2,802 yards and 13 touchdowns against only eight interceptions and finished the season ranked first in Clemson history in wins by a first-year starting quarterback (12).
However, in true ‘What have you done for me lately?’ fashion, the Tigers will once again have a quarterback battle on their hands this spring, into the summer and, likely, throughout fall camp with rising sophomore Hunter Johnson, redshirt freshman Chase Brice and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect Trevor Lawrence all vying for the coveted starting job.
For head coach Dabo Swinney, the challenge of seeing which one of the four candidates rises above the rest is not stressful — it is something that excites him.
“We've got four quarterbacks and we're going to try to make sure that all four of those guys get a ton of reps, and we'll go from there. Excited about it, ready to go,” Swinney said.
The task for each and every quarterback, including their prize recruit Lawrence, is to go out in practice and prove they have what it takes to win the job.
It was that kind of effort that won Bryant the starting job last season, and it is now Bryant’s job to go out once again and prove that he is the best man for the job.
“We've got a quarterback that this time last year had played, I don't know, 80 snaps in his career, 100, there you go,” Swinney said. “We didn't luck up and win the ACC. We beat some good teams, and he was a big part of it. So you've got a proven guy that's led your team to a playoff for the third year in a row, led your team to an ACC Championship, he's an unbelievable leader, he's just a great young man, very committed.
“So you've got that guy who, if he's the best guy, it ought to be obvious. It's where we are, that's where you start day one.”
Day one of spring practice is a long way from day one of the football season, meaning there is plenty of time for the other three to stake their respective claims.
The one thing that makes this year’s journey so exciting for Swinney is the fact that when he looks up and down the roster he knows exactly what he has in these four young men — the best of the best.
Johnson entered last January as a true freshman, and by the end of the season had solidified himself as the No. 2 quarterback — jumping ahead of former Tiger Zerrick Cooper. Chase Brice, while he redshirted last season, has established himself on the team with his play on the scout team last season.
“Got another guy in Hunter Johnson that really came on,” Swinney said. “Mentally it took him a little while to get the mental part caught up with the physical part. Very gifted and talented young player that's incredibly committed, focused. The same thing, an excellent leader who's made big strides. So you've got him and then you've got Chase Brice — who, he's just kind of a gunslinger.
“He's a winner, incredible job on scout team last year, he's tough, he's savvy, he's got an excellent arm, great instincts for the game. Again, he's been a big-time winner his whole life.”
And then there is Lawrence, the highest rated player in the history of 247Sports’ rankings, who just has everything a coach could wish for.
“Then you've got Trevor who just showed up,” Swinney said. “Obviously, he's got every tool you could possibly want in a quarterback. He's got unbelievable arm talent, size, he can run, he's had great experience, he's an awesome winner.”
So while a lot of teams will spend the spring, summer and fall trying to figure out who will do a serviceable job leading their team — by all appearances the Tigers have an abundance of riches that will not soon be spoiled.
But it is up to each of those quarterbacks to make sure they are exhausting every opportunity this spring. Especially if they want the opportunity to lead the team that is expected by many to be the No. 1 team when the polls are released.
“So we're going to choose from the best of the best, and, as a coach, that sure beats choosing from the best of the bad any day of the week,” Swinney said. “We've got a lot of great competition and they're going to make each other better, but they all understand that somebody has to run out there first. We've got a starting point. … It will all work itself out, competition's a great thing. But all of those guys can win, all of them have bright futures and it will be fun to watch them develop."