CLEMSON — Through the first three games of the 2018 season, the coaching staff for the second-ranked Clemson Tigers remained very consistent regarding the quarterback battle between incumbent Kelly Bryant and true freshman Trevor Lawrence.
Bryant had earned the job this fall with his improvement from a year ago.
"I’ll tell you, I’m really proud of Kelly because man you have to have thick skin when you play quarterback and you got so many people with their opinions and agendas and they don't watch practice or tape,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Even if they do, they don’t know what they’re watching. It's been a breath of fresh air because he's just been locked in on himself. He’s had an awesome camp.
"In three scrimmages, he was 23 of 32 for 300-something yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Did a tremendous job. He just came out on top from a grade standpoint.”
However, the competition continued into the regular season for the Tigers, with each player showing flashes of greatness — leaving the coaches to remain with the status quo.
“We want to continue to play both of them,” Swinney said. “Trevor is a special talent. I think y’all see that. He’s just going to get better. You’ve just got to love what you see out of Kelly. He’s just locked in with what he’s doing and is just trying to play well with his opportunity.
“I think both of these guys can help our football team.”
That was until Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech.
On a hot day in Atlanta, those watching the game appeared to have witnessed the official changing of the guard — with Lawrence becoming the man for the Tigers.
While Swinney had been quick in previous postgame meetings with the media to say that neither quarterback had done anything to change the status quo, following the Tigers’ 49-28 victory over the Yellow Jackets, he was a little more vague with his response.
“He certainly played great,” Swinney said. “We're going to enjoy it tonight. We're not going to set the depth chart here in the postgame press conference. We're going to celebrate a win, enjoy it and as coaches, we'll get back in the office tomorrow, evaluate and watch all the tape and go from there, just like we do every week.”
“Great” may be an understatement for the play of Lawrence. He completed 13-of-18 passes for 176 yards and four touchdowns. He also led the Tigers to five of their seven touchdowns (one coming on a Bryant-led drive and one coming on defense).
In fact, Lawrence’s four touchdown passes was the the first four-touchdown passing performance by a Clemson quarterback since Deshaun Watson on Nov. 26, 2016 (six vs. South Carolina). Lawrence also became the first Clemson freshman to throw four touchdown passes since Watson on Sept. 27, 2014 (six vs. North Carolina).
The similarities to Watson were not just statistical.
On Lawrence’s first touchdown pass of the day, when he rolled out to the left and threw a strike to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott saw something very familiar.
"We had called a different play, and it was actually a check by him based on what he saw defensively,” Scott said. “No. 1, being able to check it and identify it, and No. 2 being able to roll out to your left and make that play, that was a big-time throw. Obviously sprinting out to your left is harder than to your right. I will say it wasn't a surprise to see him do it. It's kind of become the expectation with him.
"It kind of reminded me of Deshaun's (Watson) check in his first game vs. Georgia. Big-time pressure coming. It wasn't a sprint out, but it was still a big throw and fitting that throw in there ... to see that out of a true freshman is really special. I've been around 10 years and I sometimes reminisce when I see some plays."
When asked whether, based on his performance in the game, Lawrence had done enough to earn the starting job, Scott offered a strikingly similar response as Swinney.
"I think the way he played in his first two series, he earned more opportunities today in the game, and he made the most of those,” Scott said. "I think as coaches, this will be one of those videos that will be fun to go back and watch and grade and do all those things. We are going to enjoy this tonight and as coaches, we will go back and grade. Any decisions that are made will be made after we grade the video."
Regardless of whether Lawrence is named the starting quarterback when the new depth chart is released Monday morning, one thing is certain, he is not going to stop working to help the Tigers win.
"I don't know. We'll see. I thought Kelly played a good game too,” Lawrence said. “I don't know what's going to happen. I'm just going to keep attacking every week and doing everything I can to help the team."