NCAAF Teams
Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer 39d

The time is now to find out if Kelly Bryant and Jarrett Stidham are for real

College Football, Clemson Tigers, Auburn Tigers

AUBURN, Ala., and CLEMSON, S.C. -- When you're replacing one of the most dynamic college football players of the past decade and that guy pulls you aside to offer up a little advice, you hang on every word.

Kelly Bryant didn't just hang on Deshaun Watson's words. He took notes, notes that might as well have been carved into the famed Howard's Rock guarding the sloped entry way into Clemson's Death Valley.

"It's your time now. It's your show," Watson told Bryant. "Don't try to be anybody else. People are going to try and compare you to me and this and that, but you are your own quarterback. You know your game. Be you. Don't try to imitate anybody else, and the rest will take care of itself."

Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior, waited and learned for two years while Watson guided the Tigers to two straight College Football Playoff National Championship appearances, capped by last season's national title. Replacing a legend is never easy, but Bryant is game. And judging from an impressive season-opening performance in a 56-3 rout of Kent State, he has plenty of game.

"I'm going to come to work. The guys on this team know that," said Bryant, who racked up 313 yards of total offense (236 passing and 77 rushing) in a little more than two quarters of action in Week 1. "They can fall in behind and know I'm going to give it my all."

Nobody needs to tell Bryant that the real test comes Saturday when No. 13 Auburn comes to town, a game that will provide even more insight into how legit Clemson is post-Watson and how equipped Bryant is to follow a legend.

The same goes for the quarterback on the other sideline, Jarrett Stidham, who's been waiting for 22 months to get back onto this kind of stage again. The Baylor transfer made his much anticipated debut last week in Auburn's season-opening 41-7 win over Georgia Southern. He finished 14-of-24 for 185 yards passing, two touchdowns and rushed for a touchdown, but was also picked off over the middle and lost a fumble after being sacked from the blind side that was returned for Georgia Southern's only touchdown.

"It's been a long 22 months, and it was good to finally get back out there," said Stidham, who spent last fall at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, but didn't play football. "Being back in game mode was a little bit different because I hadn't done it in so long, but it was still a lot of fun to be out there.

"Experience is everything. It means so much. Obviously, I have to get a lot better. I turned the ball over twice. I did some good things and some bad things, but I have to get better."

Watson's shadow was enormous, but not too big for Bryant, who hails from the one-stoplight town of Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. He jokes that there are probably more people sitting on "The Hill" every Saturday at Clemson home games than live in Calhoun Falls, where he learned early on the importance of earning his way and not getting hung up on what anybody else thought he could or couldn't do.

Bryant heard all of the talk this offseason about how Clemson couldn't possibly be as strong with Watson now playing in the NFL. He also heard the chatter that he was more of a runner than a passer.

"It just adds a chip to your shoulder," Bryant said. "I know a lot of people looked at me as a guy who could just run and make plays with his legs. But I think the guys on the team have seen since I've been here that I can make plays with my legs, whether it's the zone read and me pulling it, and also make plays with my arm. It's just added another dimension to my game that people really didn't get to see over the course of these past two years." Auburn's defense, in particular its deep, talented defensive line, will pose a much more difficult test for Bryant. But after one game, Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is a believer. "There's only one Deshaun Watson, but it's hard to tell much difference with (Bryant) back there," Steele said. "He's a big, strong guy who's scary with his ability to run and pass. I think he's an even better runner than Watson."

In an era where college quarterbacks are quick to transfer if they're not playing by their second year, Bryant chose to stick around and learn under one of the best. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Bryant also didn't have an inflated view of himself when he arrived.

"He knew when he first got here that he wasn't ready," Swinney said. "He got his eyes opened a little bit. I always say, 'Some guys come and there's no assembly required. Others, it's all in the box, but you've got to put it together.' Kelly had all the tools, but it took a little time to get him up to speed, the adjustments, the protections, the speed of the game. But give him credit. He's put the work in and grinded for the past two years for this moment and for this opportunity.

"I'm proud of him. He's got two years left, and I think he's going to make the most of it."

Stidham, who started three games as a true freshman at Baylor in 2015, has three years remaining. And whereas Bryant was not necessarily on everybody's "A" list of quarterbacks coming into this season, Stidham actually showed up in some of the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation. Albeit immensely talented and blessed with a textbook release, Stidham is the first to roll his eyes at such grandiose expectations.

"People would tell me all the time about this article or that this was said about me," said Stidham, who had a gorgeous 19-yard touchdown throw to Will Hastings in the corner of the end zone last week. "I don't read anything about myself. I don't think it does me any good. I'm extremely hard on myself. It's something I've learned over time. I have to be my biggest critic."

He's also one of Auburn's hardest workers and a film-room junkie and endeared himself to his teammates when he arrived on the Plains with the way he connected with everybody. "He reminds me of Peyton (Manning) with his demeanor, the way he carries himself and the way he transcends all barriers. He fits in with everybody and can relate to guys from all races, cultures and backgrounds," said Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who was on Tennessee's staff during Manning's last two years in 1996 and 1997. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn added, "He's such a great leader, and his teammates trust him. He's got that 'it' factor that attracts people." Stidham counters that it's more the "Stephenville, Texas" factor.

"Where I come from, Stephenville, Texas, we know how to work one way, and that's hard," Stidham said. "Even back in high school, it was like that, and I had that same mentality coming in here. I had to show these guys, not talk about it."

The stakes for both Stidham and Bryant go up considerably this week, as both face defenses that should be among the best they face all season. There's genuine respect on both sides.

Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and Stidham were teammates in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game.

"I got an up-close look at him and just remember thinking he was one of the two best quarterbacks out there, for sure," Wilkins said. "He has a really good arm, is a great passer of the football and is a lot more athletic than people give him credit for.

"They will be ready to bring it against Clemson and ready to open things up and come after us."

Steele, who was the defensive coordinator at Clemson from 2009 to 2011 under Swinney, was especially impressed with Bryant's poise and how the moment didn't look too big for him in his first career start.

"He sure didn't look rattled, and it looked like he'd been doing it for a couple of years," Steele said. "We've got to find a way to make him uncomfortable, which isn't easy to do with a guy that can do everything he can and all the people they have around him."

Even though both are beginners when it comes to starting on the college level, Bryant and Stidham both have their pregame rituals down pat. Bryant simply likes "to chill." Stidham prefers to watch old 1980s and '90s movie cult classics, many of them for the first time. He took in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" last week.

"I'd never seen Spicoli, but I'm a big fan now," Stidham joked.

No bigger, though, than the Auburn and Clemson fans will be of Stidham and Bryant if they can help deliver more hardware to a pair of schools who've either won or played for four of the past seven national championships.

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