CLEMSON, S.C. -- The first practice of preseason camp had just wrapped and Kelly Bryant stood with his back to the wall of Clemson's mammoth indoor practice facility, facing cameras and recorders and questions -- mostly the same questions he has been answering for months. After three years as a ghost on Clemson's roster, everyone seems to want something from Bryant these days, and usually what they want is for him to talk about Deshaun Watson.
Bryant is not a superstar. He's not even the most famous quarterback on his own roster right now. Former ESPN 300 recruit Zerrick Cooper, who redshirted last season, and last year's top-ranked QB signee, Hunter Johnson, are banned from speaking to the media until they take their first college snaps. That leaves Bryant as the unofficial spokesman, providing updates on arguably the most important position battle in college football.
Of course, Bryant does understand stardom. He lived in its shadow for the past three years, the understudy's understudy to Watson -- national champion, legend and the best player to ever suit up in a Tigers uniform. And while Watson is no longer here, his presence is felt. To paraphrase Joe Biden, every interaction Bryant has these days tends to include a noun, a verb and the name Deshaun Watson.
"It's about every question, and I answer it to the best of my ability," Bryant said. "But I don't try to be Deshaun Watson."
That is the ubiquitous advice, despite how empty the words might be. Perhaps Bryant is great this year. Perhaps not. Either way, he won't be Watson, so why bother trying?
So that's what his QB coach told him when the season ended.
That's what head coach Dabo Swinney said when spring ball wrapped without a clear starter and dubious Clemson fans wondering what would become of their offense.
But how do you forget a guy who just scripted the most glorious chapter in program history?
Bryant, certainly, isn't the first to try. Two years ago, someone had to replace Marcus Mariota at Oregon and Jameis Winston at Florida State. Before that, the shadow of Johnny Manziel loomed over Texas A&M. Before that, someone had to fill the shoes of Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford and Matt Leinart and Andrew Luck and on and on and on. This is the epitome of college football. Greatness arrives with a flourish, and leaves far too soon, often with a mere mortal QB left to pick up the pieces.
At Clemson, no one on the coaching staff seems too concerned, at least publicly. But history suggests Swinney, Bryant and Co. have a tough road ahead.
Since 2005, 11 quarterbacks have finished in the top three in Heisman voting and were later selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Those quarterbacks won more than 86 percent of their games over their final two college seasons, and their offenses generated, on average, nearly 42 points per game.
In the year after they departed for the NFL, their schools saw a marked dip in production. Their collective winning percentage dropped to just 66 percent, with seven teams losing at least four games. Scoring dropped, on average, by 24 percent, with only the post-Robert Griffin III team at Baylor seeing an uptick, a stat derived largely by far better talent surrounding the QB. All 11 teams saw a reduction in yards per play. Only the post-Leinart squad at USC managed to finish as a top-5 team.
Clemson opens this season ranked fifth.
"I'm not trying to imitate anybody," Bryant said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I'm trying to enjoy it to the fullest without putting too much pressure on myself."
That's the advice he has been given, but reality asks something else. There most certainly is pressure on Bryant, just as there has been every quarterback who followed the path of a legend. And Bryant, like virtually all of those who came before him, is likely to fall far short of those massive expectations.
The word "Trill" entered the college football vernacular the last week of August 2014, as Texas A&M welcomed its next big thing.
The whirlwind that was Johnny Manziel set an otherworldly precedent on and off the field. Manziel -- charismatic, controversial, talented -- made headlines daily and departed College Station, Texas, as the most famous QB in the country, a notoriety that reached well into the pop culture mainstream.
Into that void stepped Kenny Hill.
"I was just dumb, man," Hill said of his sprint into the spotlight in 2014, when he dubbed himself "Trill" -- slang for real or legitimate -- just a week into his career as Texas A&M's starter.
Hill's first start came in Texas A&M's opener against preseason top 10 South Carolina, a Thursday night affair that would be the Aggies' first game in the post-Manziel era. Hill was a revelation. He threw for a school-record 511 yards and three touchdowns. He helped A&M's offense to 52 points -- a number Manziel never managed against a ranked SEC foe. In an instant, the narrative shifted from "replacing Johnny Football" to "Johnny who?"
Welcome to the big time, Kenny Trill.
For the better part of a month, Hill looked like the rare success story, a QB emerging from the long shadow of a legend with undeniable enthusiasm. But if there's one thing worse than early struggles in the wake of a departed legend, it might be early success.
"I wasn't ready for it yet," Hill says now, three years removed from his auspicious debut. "I wasn't mature enough. I thought I was, but I wasn't. I was young and dumb."
Hill relished the spotlight, and he happily followed in Manziel's footsteps as a force of nature on and off the field. He hyped his game, celebrated often and enjoyed being the life of the party. That's how Manziel had handled success, after all, and the media had eagerly dubbed Hill the next Johnny.
By the end of September, Hill and the Aggies were 5-0. He had tossed 17 touchdowns and just two picks. He was the toast of the town.
A month later, his career at A&M was effectively over.
As it turned out, that South Carolina defense Hill shredded proved horrendous. He had beaten FCS Lamar, an SMU team that finished 1-11, middling Rice and Arkansas, a team that won just two SEC games that year. It turned out Kenny Trill -- real, legit, the next Johnny Football -- was a flash in the pan.
By the end of October, A&M had lost three straight. Hill was benched, suspended for two games for a violation of team rules, and fans would never see him take another snap in an Aggies jersey.
Today, Hill is the starter at TCU. He transferred following his ignominious tumble down the Aggies' depth chart, and, after two years away from the Kenny Trill hysteria, the Johnny Football legend and the glaring heat of the center stage spotlight, he has finally found some solace. All it took was a few years of maturing, myriad setbacks and a new stage.
"Back then, I was trying to be in the middle of everything," Hill said. "I was just out there trying to have fun. It was my first time away from home. I didn't know what I was doing. You don't win over your teammates by going out all the time and being out with them. You win your teammates over in the weight room, on the field, hanging out with them, like, 'Hey, let's go eat,' not going out all the time."
Tee Martin replaced the greatest player in Tennessee history, and now Martin has a street named after him on campus in Knoxville.
Martin's story -- 16 career pass attempts while playing behind Peyton Manning, followed by a 13-0 season and a national championship -- is the exception to the rule, but even that story nearly dissolved in the first half of an October game in Athens, Georgia.
"I don't think I've ever chewed a quarterback's rear end harder or more or longer than I did that day," said David Cutcliffe, Martin's offensive coordinator during the 1998 title run and a 40-year veteran of coaching quarterbacks.
Cutcliffe had a plan for Martin that he refined over the course of more than a year before Manning departed for the NFL. In truth, Tennessee's coaching staff assumed Manning would depart after his junior season as NFL scouts drooled over his pro potential. Cutcliffe and other assistants were in Atlanta that December when Manning woke his offensive coordinator with a 1 a.m. phone call. "I'm coming back," he told Cutcliffe, and with that, the coaches packed up and returned to campus to start planning another year with a legend.
But while Tennessee fans eyed a title in 1997, a seemingly foregone conclusion with Manning returning, Cutcliffe kept thinking about the next man up.
Like Bryant has heard so often this year, Cutcliffe told Martin to be himself, not to mimic Manning. Only things weren't that simple. Cutcliffe loved the culture Manning had created -- the practice habits, the film study, the sheer knowledge of the opponent -- and he wanted Martin to embrace all that. "We mimicked the right things," Cutcliffe said.
But on the field, coaches limited Martin's role, shifting to a run-first offense.
Manning was master of the Tennessee offense, calling audibles at the line of scrimmage that, years later, would become synonymous with his game. He was a passer first -- and, pretty much, exclusively. He was a veteran, a four-year starter who struck fear into the opposition. Martin was none of those things, and Cutcliffe framed his offense accordingly.
"I just remember there being a lot of doubt," said Martin, now the offensive coordinator at USC. "I hadn't played a lot, and with Peyton leaving there was just a lot of doubt. That feeling -- it wasn't just myself, but the offense in general -- every day it felt like we had something to prove to the coaching staff."
To start the 1998 season, Cutcliffe's plan was simple: Hand the ball to Jamal Lewis, let him run, and ask Martin to avoid catastrophe. But the plan had to change after Lewis hurt his knee against Auburn on Oct. 3, leaving Martin the centerpiece of the offense.
Martin remembers coach Phillip Fulmer addressing the offense the following week. "We're going to need to be more balanced now," Fulmer told the team, and Martin interpreted that as a signal to take the training wheels off and embrace his inner Manning. The transition didn't go well.
The following week, Tennessee sputtered to a 9-3 halftime lead against Georgia, with Martin completing just 9 of 17 passes with two interceptions. For the first month of the season, he'd done his job -- smart decisions, calm management of the offense, handing off regularly to Lewis. Cutcliffe had devised a specific plan for the offense, and he'd made sure his QB had followed it precisely. Now, without his safety net, Martin improvised.
"He was trying to be Peyton, to win the game with his playmaking," Cutcliffe said. "But that [game] was the turning point of that 1998 Tennessee team."
Cutcliffe's halftime rant stirred something in Martin. A week later, the Volunteers dominated Alabama 35-18. A week after that, Martin set an NCAA record by completing his first 23 passes in a blowout of South Carolina. Two months after that, Martin had the national championship that had eluded Manning during his four years as Tennessee's star QB. Cutcliffe had convinced Martin to let go of those Manning-sized expectations, and Martin had convinced his coaches to trust the new kid with a suitable game plan.
"I don't know if any quarterback will top the Peyton Manning legacy at Tennessee, but when I go back, people recognize," Martin said. "Me and my teammates are constantly having fans stop us, and now with social media, they'll message about that season and thank us for what we did."
Still, even Cutcliffe couldn't work the same magic a second time. After Tennessee's title, Cutcliffe was hired as head coach at Ole Miss, where he'd work with Manning's younger brother, Eli, culminating with a 10-3 season in 2003. Cutcliffe hoped to build off that season, but he didn't make the right adjustments for a new QB.
"We tried to continue to run Eli's offense, and we didn't focus on those same habits," Cutcliffe said. "And the next year, I was fired. What we didn't do was make good decisions on how to follow a great player."
Not long after Bryant's first fall media session, his predecessor's endorsement came.
It's KB's team! He gone do what he needs to do in his own style/way to create his own legacy! He will be GREAT! 💯 https://t.co/U1Hbx3pO2c— Deshaun Watson (@deshaunwatson) August 6, 2017
With that blessing, commenters quickly doubled down on Bryant. One compared Bryant's look to Cam Newton. Another noted he'd already been raving to friends about Bryant's potential. One fan said that if Watson believed in Bryant, then success was all but guaranteed.
Even Watson's support underscores the burden Bryant now carries. He hasn't yet won the starting job, but the greatest player in program history is already building the hype. A bar has been set, and even if Bryant follows the "be yourself" advice, he has little control over those outside expectations.
"Nobody has to come in and be Superman," Swinney said.
But even if they get Aquaman, will Clemson fans be happy? Will it be enough to push the Tigers back to the playoff? They've already been saved by Superman, so how does anyone follow that?
The funny thing about Bryant's time in front of the cameras is he seemed perfectly happy to be there. At the end of the spring, he was still a baby taking his first cautious steps. Even the dim spotlight felt a bit blinding. But here, four months removed from his spring game performance and eight months since Watson zipped a throw to Hunter Renfrow in the end zone to win a national championship, Bryant was effusive, enthusiastic, energetic. He smiled. He spoke in off-the-cuff quips. He expounded without prodding, talked with a confidence that belied his inexperience. He seemed like ... himself.
Asked if he still felt like he was driving someone else's car at practice, Bryant beamed.
"Nah," he said. "It felt like my own Ferrari."
For now, he has the keys. And after an offseason getting the seats and mirrors just right, he's cranking up the radio and shoving his foot on the gas pedal.
But not everyone is meant to drive a Ferrari, and not everyone is so comfortable at top speed. It's a lesson learned again and again and again.
Maybe Bryant is different. Maybe he's more Tee Martin than John Brantley, Tebow's successor. Or maybe one of Clemson's other young guns gets the starting nod from Day 1, and he'll find his own way to escape Watson's shadow.
"You've got a chance to be the guy," Bryant said. "I'm just trying to make my own name. I'm not going to be Deshaun. I'm not going to do the things he did. He had his game, I have my own game. I know what I can do. I just gotta go out there and show it."