All week, ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, David Hale and Jared Shanker discuss the most pressing spring storylines for teams across the conference. Up next for debate: Which ACC player needs a big spring?
Is it any surprise two of the three players we’re highlighting are Clemson quarterbacks? That alone shows how important the winner of this competition will be on a national scale.
Coach Dabo Swinney has declared Kelly Bryant ahead of his competitors in the race to replace Deshaun Watson. And really, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering Bryant has more experience than Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson. But coaches aren’t going to just hand Bryant the starting job based on his experience advantage.
Bryant needs a big spring to separate himself from Cooper and Johnson and declare himself definitively the only choice at quarterback. The first big scrimmage is this week, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Bryant needs a better performance than anybody on that field.
All eyes are going to be on whomever replaces Watson. Clemson isn’t expecting a complete replica, nor is anybody else. But the Tigers’ ACC and College Football Playoff hopes hinge on what ends up happening at quarterback, and it’s fair to say that the entire offense would be much better off without indecision at the marquee spot on the field. If Bryant wins it fair and square, both he and his teammates will have an entire offseason without any doubts lingering. He’s got the edge now. Bryant has to find a way to hold onto it.
David Hale: Clemson QB Zerrick Cooper
There’s a lot to like about Cooper’s game, and a lot of Clemson fans assume he’ll eventually be the guy to replace Watson at the helm of the Tigers offense. But there’s also a lot of mystery surrounding the redshirt freshman. He’s never played a college down, taken just a handful of reps with Clemson’s No. 1 or No. 2 units in practice, and he’s surrounded on the depth chart by players more experienced, more talented or both.
So, what’s Cooper’s future?
With a year in the system and a load of talent, he could certainly emerge this spring as the No. 1 QB on the depth chart, a job that might then be his for the next three or four years. On the other hand, if Bryant wins the gig long enough for Johnson to get his feet wet -- perhaps a situation similar to Cole Stoudt and Watson in 2014 -- then Cooper’s window to win the job might be closed by the end of September.
This is one of the perks of being in the rarified air Clemson now inhabits. There’s always more talent waiting in the wings. For Cooper, however, that means the margin of error is small, and Swinney and Co. have no need to wait for him to find his footing. The Tigers already have a veteran they feel comfortable with in Bryant, and with Johnson and 2018’s top rated QB, Trevor Lawrence, on the horizon, it’s now or never for Cooper.
While Jerod Evans was always in the driver’s seat to start last season, there was a reason coach Justin Fuente initially included Joshua Jackson in the preseason quarterback competition. First, it’s good experience for the young quarterback. But by all accounts, Jackson performed well for someone who only a few months ago was sitting in a high school classroom. Jackson was able to spend his freshman season learning the offense as a redshirt, and now the job is open for him to take. There will be another QB competition, but Jackson is in great position to become the future of the Hokies’ offense.