CLEMSON, S.C. -- Halfway through spring practice, the battle for the starting quarterback job at Clemson remains indistinguishably close, so coach Dabo Swinney decided to add an extra degree of difficulty for the three QBs jockeying for position on the depth chart.
When the Tigers hit the field for their first scrimmage of the spring Monday, it was live contact for everyone -- including the quarterbacks. That’s something Swinney hadn’t done before, but with senior Cole Stoudt and third-year sophomore Chad Kelly battling to a draw in non-contact jerseys, it was time to see what they’d do with the pressure on them.
“From an evaluation standpoint,” Swinney said, “we needed it.”
And yet, the results weren't particularly illuminating: No sacks, no turnovers, and no better indication of who’ll be taking the snaps for Clemson when it opens the season Aug. 30 at Georgia.
Kelly took both the first and the most reps with the first-team offense, and he said he felt good about his performance.
When the Tigers scrimmage again next week, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it will be Stoudt handling the opening drive, and Morris offered praise for his senior, too.
Working with the second- and third-team offenses, even early enrollee Deshaun Watson managed to make enough plays to wow his coaches, making the race to replace Tajh Boyd all that much tougher to project.
“I was hoping someone would separate himself and make it clear cut that this was the guy,” Morris said. “I thought you’d see some quick separation [this spring]. But it hasn’t [happened], and that’s a good thing for us because they’re all three doing really well.”
Each quarterback brings something to the table.
Stoudt, who has three years of game experience as Boyd’s backup under his belt, has been the calm, cool and collected veteran. Kelly, whose mobility makes him a more versatile weapon, can ride an emotional roller coaster at times, but he’s also adept at firing up the offense with his theatrics. Then there’s Watson, the high school phenom widely projected as the quarterback of the future. He’s well behind the curve in terms of experience, and Morris said it’s unlikely he could win the job this spring, but the freshman is a unique talent.
“We’d love to redshirt him, but if he’s given the opportunity to play, he’s a guy that if the door opens for him, he may never look back,” Morris said. “He’s got that type of ability.”
Clemson didn’t divulge stats from Monday’s scrimmage, but Swinney said each quarterback had some highlights, some mistakes, and led at least one scoring drive. Even with two offensive linemen out with injuries, each quarterback managed to elude the pressure and move the chains. It was a wake-up call for some of the defensive linemen, Swinney said, but it might have also been a big check mark for Stoudt, whose widely seen as the least mobile of the three QBs.
“I’ve proven [Monday] and other games I can make plays with my feet, even if it’s not 40-yard runs,” Stoudt said. “I’m constantly working on that, and I know I’ve improved on that this spring a lot.”
Stoudt said he has an idea of where he stands on the depth chart at the moment, but he wasn’t interested in divulging that insight. Kelly, too, said he was pleased with what he has shown so far, suggesting the coaches’ public comments on the battle may not always reflect where things actually stand.
But if Monday’s scrimmage didn’t necessarily provide answers to the big-picture questions, it at least offered a fresh perspective on the proceedings, and Morris said he expects the quarterbacks to be live again in next week’s scrimmage.
Swinney isn’t sure he’ll be ready to name a starter any time soon. While Morris said there’s cause for anxiety about a two-man race heading into the summer -- “There are two quarterbacks battling for the job, and we’re going to have to make sure the team isn’t two groups,” he said. -- Swinney wouldn’t be opposed to letting the battle play out through fall camp.
It’s the hottest storyline of spring for Clemson, Swinney admits, but the truth is, he’s not concerned about how it all gets resolved.
“We do not have a quarterback problem,” Swinney said. “I know that’s the million-dollar question everybody has their eyes on, but we’re going to be just fine at quarterback. It is a very competitive situation. The good news is, we could win with any of those guys.”