CLEMSON, S.C. — When spring practice began more than a month ago, the company line was an easy sell. Kelly Bryant was Clemson’s top QB, and there wasn’t much debate.
The spring ended Saturday with the annual Orange and White game, and while Dabo Swinney wasn’t wavering from that initial depth chart, even he admits that there’s far less certainty surrounding that pecking order now.
“He’s still, at this point, No. 1 if we played today,” Swinney said. “But when you came into spring, that was an easy thing to say. You had to start somewhere. … Guys are better than they were day one. Kelly has had a good spring, but those guys behind him have had great springs as well.”
Freshman Trevor Lawrence lived up to all the hype in his Tigers debut — at least, his first action in front of fans — completing 11-of-16 throws for 122 yards and a touchdown. He threw a second TD, too, but refs whistled the play dead as a sack because quarterbacks weren’t live for the scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Bryant missed a few potential big plays, and his final stat line — a paltry 8-of-15 for 35 yards — won’t do much to instill confidence within a fan base already eager to see the next big thing in action.
Swinney, not surprisingly, cautioned not to read too much into the results of Saturday’s spring game. It was just one of 15 practices, and Bryant looked sharp in many of the others.
“He’s made a lot of big plays and proven that he can win at the highest level,” Swinney said. “But last year isn’t this year. It’s a very competitive situation.”
Still, even a generous review of Bryant’s ability might not match the potential for Lawrence, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN.
On his touchdown throw, he ran a play-action, found his tight end covered, then checked to Tee Higgins downfield, dropping a dime into the receiver’s hands for an easy score. He appeared to weave his way out of traffic momentarily to deliver another TD to Higgins later in the game, though the referee’s whistle nullified it. When he retreated to the sideline, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Lawrence would run through his decision-making, illustrating a strong grasp of a playbook he has had at his disposal for only a few months.
“He wasn’t overwhelmed as far as learning, was able to practice pretty quickly what we were asking him to do,” Swinney said. “That’s a hard thing. That’s a lot to know. He really was excellent, very well prepared and ready. And as we continued, he had a day or two where he bogged down a little bit, but all in all, it was an excellent spring.”
If there were a common refrain throughout the spring, it was that Bryant’s leadership and consistency set him apart, but as Lawrence has grown more comfortable, that gap has closed some, and Elliott said that, when it’s time to ultimately make the decision, the locker room leadership isn’t likely to be a deciding factor.
“Chemistry in the locker room is critical, but game recognizes game,” Elliott said. “And if the best guy isn’t on the field, that can hurt your team, too. It’s not going to be favoritism. It’s going to be the best guy.”
Swinney said the next few months, when players work apart from the coaching staff, often separate the top performers, so he isn’t tipping his hand just yet.
But if there were already ample buzz around Lawrence’s future at Clemson, Saturday’s spring game did little to quell the hype.
“It really doesn’t matter because we don’t play until September,” Swinney said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and they’ve got to earn it every day. We’ll sit down, meet with all those guys, let them know exactly where they are and what they’ve got to get done this summer.”