Parker's maturation puts Tigers in Atlantic lead

Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker doesn’t have the eye-popping statistics of some of the nation’s best quarterbacks, nor is he one of the ACC most prolific passers -- yet.

But Parker is one of just two freshmen quarterbacks in the ACC in his first season as a full-time starter, and he has matured quickly enough to put the Tigers in contention to win the Atlantic Division in Saturday’s home finale against Virginia. By the end of October, Parker had faced three of the country’s top 15 teams, and his impressive performance in a 40-37 overtime win at then-No. 10 Miami was only the start of his measurable improvement.

Parker was held without a passing touchdown in three of the first five games of the season and threw five touchdown passes and five interceptions during that span in which Clemson was 2-3. Over the past five games -- a five-game winning streak for the Tigers -- Parker has thrown 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

The difference now, Parker said, is that he knows what to expect.

“Whenever you go out there and play a couple of games, you kind of have a feel, and kind of know the speed of the game,” said Parker, who has made 25 throws of at least 20 yards this year, and leads the Tigers in total offense with 192.1 yards per game. “You get used to seeing more looks from defenses, and that’s the biggest thing I’m more comfortable with.

“When I first went out there against Middle Tennessee State, I really didn’t know what was going on. I was just trying to figure it out along the way.”

He figured it out quickly enough to have a record-setting season.

When Clemson beat Miami, Parker became the first freshman quarterback to lead Clemson to a win over a top-10 team.

He broke three more records and tied another in the win over Florida State. Parker set the record for most wins in a season by a freshman quarterback. He now has seven, breaking the previous mark of five set by Rodney Williams in 1985. He also broke Charlie Whitehurst’s record for 10 touchdown passes in a season by a freshman with 16.

“The biggest thing with Kyle is he’s just grown in his understanding of how to prepare to be a winning quarterback at this level, and what you have to do on a weekly basis,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “He figured out early on, ‘You know what? I’m going to have to pay a little bit more attention to detail, get a little more focused, put a little more time into the film and study.’ Kyle’s kind of a cool customer, but he has really grown from a preparation standpoint.

“... Now he’s had some success and he’s had a lot of critical plays throughout the season. He’s really developed as a leader. These guys have a lot of confidence in Kyle. He’s earned that respect. These guys believe in him. They feel like they’ve got a chance with him to win every time they step on the field. Kyle has taken advantage of that and asserted himself as a leader. It’s been really good to see him grow in that regard.”

Parker enters Saturday’s game against Virginia averaging 184.8 passing yards per game, and has completed 54.1 percent of his passes (146-of-270) for 1,848 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

“His launch point, where he’s got the ball loaded, has become more and more consistent,” offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. “That’s led to a more consistent motion. I think he has an uncanny release -- a really quick release. His arm strength is way up there. I think he’s worked real hard on his upper body mechanics, his posture, keeping his front shoulder down and open, and really stressing moving in the pocket with two hands on the ball, managing the pocket. That’s one of the things he’s really good at despite being -- he’d say 6-foot.”

Parker has also benefited from the improvement of players around him, namely the offensive line. None of the Tigers, though, allowed their 2-3 start to keep them down.

“The biggest thing is we didn’t quit,” Parker said. “There was a lot of negativity going around, and we didn’t give into that. We just kept playing hard and stayed confident and realized we could be a good team as long as we kept working hard and preparing.”

And on Saturday, it could pay off with the program’s first guaranteed appearance in the ACC title game.