Clemson began spring practice Wednesday with a little more uncertainty than many would have hoped for. Tuesday saw the suspension of four key players for the Tigers’ 2014 season opener against Georgia, while many position battles got started Wednesday with their first test on the field. Arguably (but not really) the most important battle to watch throughout the spring will be at the quarterback position. With Tajh Boyd having graduated and entering the NFL Draft, Clemson is faced with the task of replacing the 2012 All-America QB. Coach Dabo Swinney said about the competition,
It’s a situation where everybody respects the fact that, hey, this guy wants to be the guy, that guy wants to be the guy. It’s going to be fun to watch it take place. Everything counts. It’s going to be incredibly competitive. It’s not a situation where we don’t have talent at that position. … For us, who gives us the best chance to win on Saturdays right now? That’s the process we’ve got to sort out.
Here’s a breakdown of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting role:
Stoudt will be the lone Senior in this group, giving him a slight advantage over the competition to begin Spring practice. His father, Cliff, was an NFL quarterback, so he has that NFL pedigree that is always nice to have. Additionally, Stoudt was stellar a season ago for the Tigers, albeit mostly in mop up duty. He completed nearly 80% of his passes (79.7%) and threw for 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in 2013. Stoudt also ran for 58 yards and 2 scores on 14 carries. For Stoudt to win the job, he is going to have to be nearly flawless all Spring long. He was not nearly as highly recruited as the other two quarterbacks he is trying to beat out, and while you’d hope that wouldn’t have any effect on the outcome of this competition, there is no doubt that if Stoudt were to be named the starter and Clemson struggled early in the Georgia game, fans would immediately be calling for Chad Kelly or Deshaun Watson.
Kelly, like Soudt, has the NFL pedigree in his family – although Kelly’s may be slightly better. Chad is the nephew of NFL Hall Of Famer Jim Kelly, who played for the Miami Hurricanes in college before playing for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. Chad Kelly has all the tools to be extremely successful in this Clemson offense. As the third string QB a season ago, coming off an ACL injury, he completed 10-17 passes and also ran 16 times for 117 yards and a touchdown. Kelly, a redshirt Sophomore next year, will be entering his third season in Clemson, so he too has some experience in the offense and with the playbook. Kelly is a bit more mobile that Stoudt, which he proved in the Virginia game in 2013 with an impressive 38 yard touchdown run. At 6’2″ he is big enough to do all of the things you want out of your quarterback, while still being agile and nimble enough to make defenders miss in the open field. On top of all of this, Kelly is also not shy about his confidence. His social media accounts, specifically Twitter and Instagram, are full of videos, retweets, and various other messages declaring himself ready for the 2014 season, ready to start, and ready to do such things as win a Heisman Trophy and National Championship. It’s tough not to like that from your quarterback, so long as he can back it up.
Watson was the prized possession of the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class. The true Freshman enters spring camp as the third option, in my estimation, solely because of his lack of experience in the Clemson offense. While he did run a similar offense in high school, Watson will have to adjust and adapt to the speed of the college game, as well as the wrinkles, twists, and shear magnitude of Chad Morris’ playbook. Watson has everything you could ever want out of a quarterback. Size, speed, arm strength, poise, you name it. At 6’4″ he has prototypical NFL size, while still posing a huge threat as a runner. Watson probably needs to hit the weight room and add some muscle to his slender frame to be able to hold up to the pounding a QB will take over the course of a season, but he certainly has the talent to be an excellent player for the Tigers.
Who Will Win?
My money is on Chad Kelly. He has size, speed, an NFL pedigree, experience, and a confidence and swagger about him that is unparalleled. There are some things that you can teach, but the certainty and tenacity with which he plays are not them. While it is difficult to go against the near 80% completion percentage of Cole Stoudt from a year ago, I think those numbers were somewhat inflated by his playing against second string defenses. While Dabo says that all three of these young men could play in the NFL, I see a discrepancy in the talent levels between Stoudt and the other two quarterbacks. At the end of the day, I expect Kelly’s talent to come out on top, and earn the starting gig. As for Watson, I honestly think he is just too young to be handed the starting job. Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston have benefited in recent years from redshirting and sitting for a season, before becoming the starter. Manziel won the Heisman in 2012, while Winston won it in 2013, leading the Florida State Seminoles to a National Championship. I think the same kind of approach with Watson is the way to go, and ultimately, the way Dabo and his staff will play it out. While he possesses all the talent in the world, Watson would profit from sitting a year, gaining some weight, building his frame, and learning the offense. If he does this and is diligent about his work, Watson could end up an absolute stud in 2015 and beyond.
As for Kelly, I think he has his eyes set on the NFL. I could easily see him parlaying one good year at Clemson into a jump to the NFL Draft. That is looking way down the road, though. For now, Kelly will have to beat out Stoudt and Watson for the right to start August 30th between the hedges in Athens, Georgia against the Bulldogs.