CLEMSON, S.C. -- It's been one year since all hell broke loose at Clemson.
It's strange to look back now, knowing how the story ends, but the seven days last September between the Tigers' Week 4 win over Georgia Tech and their near-disaster in Week 5 against Syracuse were enough to convince senior receiver Hunter Renfrow it was the most exhausting week of his career.
In that one week, the nation's most-talked-about recruit became Clemson's new starting QB. The incumbent QB, who'd gone 19-2 as a starter, left the program with just a text message to his coach. The guy who was once the fifth-string QB had to rescue the Tigers from playoff oblivion. And an offensive package was added to the playbook so Renfrow could step in at quarterback if needed.
A year later, it's all worked out pretty well. Clemson won a title behind that talked-about recruit (Trevor Lawrence). The incumbent (Kelly Bryant) found a home. Renfrow finished his career with two passing yards. But the story of that preposterous week will go down in Clemson lore -- and was quite possibly the turning point for a team destined to become college football's first 15-0 champions.
The QB battle
A few weeks before Lawrence arrived on campus in 2018, Bryant led the Tigers to the College Football Playoff, but he struggled badly against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Seven days after that, Nick Saban made the bold move of pulling his starter, Jalen Hurts, in the national championship game against Georgia, with Tua Tagovailoa emerging as a superstar and leading the Tide to a come-from-behind win.
That was the backdrop for Clemson's own QB battle. If anything, Lawrence arrived with even more hype than Tagovailoa enjoyed at Alabama. Even Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney offered a telling synopsis of his prized recruit: Lawrence was akin to Clemson great Deshaun Watson -- but more physically prepared for action.
Through the spring, Lawrence excelled on the field, impressive enough that Clemson's other quarterbacks, Zerrick Cooper and later Hunter Johnson, decided to transfer. But Bryant was still the starter. In high school, he'd made a huge leap from his junior to senior seasons, and he was expecting to do the same at Clemson.
"It was close," Swinney said, holding his left hand an inch or so above his right.
Fall camp was the same story. Lawrence had some huge days, more than Bryant actually. But he was a freshman, and he was still inconsistent. Bryant was the reliable veteran, still playing well enough to keep the job. So that's how the season began. Bryant was the starter. Lawrence would play regularly.
"You have to earn it, and [Lawrence] hadn't earned it in camp," Swinney said. "But I told our guys, if there's a change, we'll all know it."
The turning point
The moment of truth came on Sept. 22, 2018, in Atlanta. For the first three games of the season, Bryant and Lawrence had taken turns at QB, the veteran handling the most impactful drives against Texas A&M, and the freshman getting his feet wet. Against Georgia Tech, however, there was a seismic shift in performance.
Bryant was mediocre. He completed 6-of-10 passes and failed to throw a touchdown.
Lawrence threw for four touchdowns.
Lawrence fuels Clemson to another big win
Trevor Lawrence enters the game in the second quarter and throws four touchdowns to carry the Tigers to a 49-21 win over the Yellow Jackets.
"It had become obvious to everyone on staff," Swinney said. "[Lawrence] passed him -- in grade and in production. I knew I had to do what was best for our team, and Trevor deserved the opportunity to start."
The next day, Bryant was summoned to Swinney's office. The coach delivered the news.
Bryant talked through his options with his coach. There was a new rule in place that allowed players to appear in up to four games and retain a redshirt, meaning he could sit out the rest of the season and play elsewhere in 2019.
Later, Swinney would be applauded for giving Bryant that option. Had he waited another week to make the change, Bryant would've been stuck at Clemson. But Swinney insists the timing was purely coincidental.
"It just happened," Swinney said. "I told Kelly he might've been the starter again the next week."
Bryant was already leaning toward a transfer, however. Swinney offered him a deal: Stick around, stay with your teammates, and Swinney wouldn't put him in another game. Bryant could retain his redshirt but would need to stick with the team.
Swinney excused Bryant from Monday's practice but left the door open for his QB to return as the backup or simply a cheerleader.
Bryant was in the Clemson team meetings on Monday but skipped practice that night. He returned Tuesday, and he again participated in team and QB meetings. When practice began that evening, however, Bryant was nowhere to be found.
At first, Swinney was concerned.
"I didn't think he was in a good place," Swinney said at the time. "He was very disappointed."
Swinney sent an assistant to Bryant's home to check on the QB. After practice, Swinney got a text. Bryant said he appreciated his time at Clemson, was glad to have his degree, but he was done as a member of the Tigers.
"Being a team guy that's been a team player for so long," Bryant told ESPN this summer, "you can kind of get lost in the shuffle of who you are and taking care of yourself. It was tough because initially that's not something I wanted to do, leaving my guys like that. But you have to take care of yourself and look out for you, because if not, nobody else will."
The way Bryant saw it, he'd waited his turn behind Watson, had won big when given the chance, and his best days were still ahead. He wanted desperately to play, and he had one chance to do it. That meant leaving.
Bryant's personal quarterback coach and mentor, Ramon Robinson, said the choice was agonizing, and the aftermath even worse. Bryant's departure created a social media firestorm, with fans blaming the quarterback for quitting.
"It wasn't an easy decision to make, leaving a place he's been for four years -- blood, sweat and tears," Robinson said. "He wants people to understand he's not a quitter. That kid has never quit on nothing. He's always been a competitor, one of the toughest competitors I've ever known. He wanted his teammates to know I'm not quitting on y'all, but I'm utilizing my opportunity to play elsewhere."
Inside the Clemson locker room, that message resonated. As stunning as Bryant's departure had been, there were no public critiques, no teammates voicing disgust.
"We'll love him regardless of what he chose," Renfrow said at the time. "I don't think a lot of [players] even knew it was a decision until he made it, but we support him. When you have a brother who makes a bad decision, you still love him -- and not even a bad decision, just something you wouldn't have done yourself. But at the same time I'm not in his shoes, not going through the same things he's going through."
Bryant's sudden departure generated national headlines and turned the college football world on its head. How would the Tigers respond to the adversity? Would other players follow Bryant's lead and bolt midseason? Could the inexperienced Lawrence captain this ship?
Among Clemson's players, however, there was a sense of relief. They'd been following the twists and turns of the QB battle for months, and once decisions were made, players were eager to turn the page.
"It's like a hurricane. When you're in the eye, everything looks fine. Outside, everyone's losing their minds."Clemson offensive lineman Tremayne Anchrum
"It's like a hurricane," offensive lineman Tremayne Anchrum said. "When you're in the eye, everything looks fine. Outside, everyone's losing their minds. We knew exactly who we were, exactly what was going on. We were disappointed when the whole Kelly Bryant thing happened, but we knew we had what it took to be a great team."
If there was a wild card, however, it was Lawrence. Funny thing is, this wasn't his first QB controversy. Lawrence started as a freshman in high school, too. Midway through the season, he beat out the veteran, Miller Forristall, who ended up shifting to tight end and is now playing for Alabama. Still, college was a much bigger stage, and the expectations for Lawrence's emergence as Clemson's starter were immense.
Those first nine months on campus had taken their toll on the freshman. He'd split up with his girlfriend. He was mobbed everywhere he went. He said all the right things, both in and out of the locker room, but it was difficult to battle Bryant for a job amid such a glaring spotlight. And so, Christian Wilkins invited the new QB out to breakfast.
Swinney later called the meal evidence of Wilkins' tremendous leadership, and Clemson fans have chalked it up as a line of demarcation in a season of destiny, but Wilkins doesn't want to overstate its impact.
"I was just looking out for Trevor," Wilkins said. "He had a lot of things on his plate, so I just went on a date with a nice, cute blond."
They talked about life, not football. Wilkins never said it overtly, but the message was clear. Wilkins had the pulse of the team. He was the most respected player in the locker room. And he was giving Lawrence his blessing.
"It was something casual for me," Wilkins said. "But it was an easy thing for me to do because he was such a good teammate and such a young guy with so many expectations and so much going on in his life."
Finding a Plan ... C?
When the 2017 season drew to a close, Clemson had a half-dozen quarterbacks on its roster. But come Week 5 of 2018, the transfers of Johnson, Cooper, Tucker Israel and, as of that week, Bryant, left redshirt freshman Chase Brice as the backup QB.
That week was Brice's first reps with the second-team offense all season. He'd never taken a meaningful snap on game day.
"I'd make the same decision 1,000 times out of 1,000 times. That's my job."Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
After Brice, Clemson's last resort was Renfrow, the walk-on receiver-turned-championship game hero, who'd quarterbacked an option attack in high school. Swinney pulled Renfrow aside that Tuesday, asking if he'd be open to taking a few reps at a new position. That same day, Clemson announced cornerback Mark Fields would be suspended for the Syracuse game, and Renfrow assumed Swinney wanted him at DB.
"Sure thing, Coach," Renfrow said, jogging toward where the secondary was practicing.
Swinney called him back. No, not cornerback. Quarterback.
Clemson was now playing without a safety net.
The Syracuse game
A year earlier, Syracuse shocked Clemson with a stunning upset at the Carrier Dome after Bryant went down with an injury in the first half. Now, Lawrence would make his debut as the team's starter in the revenge match with the Orange, and it took just five drives before Clemson's worst fears were realized.
Lawrence took a hard hit along the sideline late in the second quarter. Brice came on for the Tigers' final drive of the half. When the team emerged from the locker room, trailing 16-7, it was Brice leading the offense. Lawrence was ruled out.
"I couldn't even remember the last time I repped with the ones," Brice said. "I was just thinking, I don't want to lose. That's what everybody thought. We've got to pull this out somehow."
After a punt and interception ended Brice's first two drives, he led three straight scoring drives -- two field goals and a touchdown -- but the Tigers still trailed 23-20 and was facing a fourth-and-1 near midfield with 2:50 to play.
Swinney decided to go for it. Clemson lined up for a run play. Lineman Gage Cervenka jumped early. Fourth-and-six.
Syracuse ran a Cover 2, and Clemson called a play to distract a corner with the tight end. The corner bit. Tee Higgins was open downfield. Brice saw him and unleashed a throw, just as Higgins got out of his break.
That's the play everyone remembers now. The next play, however, might've been more astonishing. Brice was supposed to hand the ball off on first down, but he saw a defensive end crashing, pulled the ball from Travis Etienne's belly, and scrambled on his own.
Swinney was on the sideline, yelling for Brice to slide, knowing there are no more healthy quarterbacks.
"Chase just puts his head in there," said Clemson play-by-play voice Don Munson, "and all of a sudden, it's a rugby scrum."
The play went for 17 yards. Four plays later, Etienne -- who rushed for 203 yards and helped carry the Tigers to the win -- was in the end zone.
Etienne's TD puts Clemson on top
Clemson caps off a 94-yard drive with a two-yard score from Travis Etienne to give Clemson the lead over Syracuse in the fourth quarter.
The win was a turning point for the Tigers -- not just at quarterback, but as a team.
"To rise above everything that was going on," Wilkins said, "we had a bigger goal in mind, and we were able to come together. Chase deserved a Superman cape, and it was a big game for us with all that went on that week."
Clemson won its next 10 games, including the national championship over Alabama, by an average of 36 points.
Bryant didn't watch the Syracuse game. While the TV broadcasters speculated about his potential return to the team in lieu of the Lawrence injury, Bryant was on a boat, fishing.
"That was a serious moment," Robinson said. "He was trying to get his mind away from that because I think it would be painful for him to watch. Trevor getting hurt -- it would've been painful for him to watch him play and doing something he'd envisioned doing. Either way it was going to be painful."
Lawrence blossomed into a superstar in the weeks that followed the Syracuse game. He returned from a concussion the following week, throwing 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions the rest of the way. He entered 2019 as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
After leaving the team, Bryant told The Greenville News he didn't feel he got a fair shake at Clemson, noting later to ESPN that "a lot went on, but I'm not mad about it."
Swinney said at the time that he continued to support the NCAA redshirt rule -- "It's an opportunity for these young people. How can you be against that?" he said -- and Robinson said that, in time, Bryant could be viewed as a trailblazer for player freedoms.
Bryant, meanwhile, spent the rest of the season training with Robinson and considering his options, and eventually transferred to Missouri.
On his official visit, Missouri's coaches brought up Bryant's high school career. They'd watched the film, saw him blossom in his final season. Now his new coaches were offering him the chance.
"Don't ever give him the idea he can't do something," Robinson said. "That ain't how he rolls. Stay positive, show him the way, and he'll do anything you want him to do."
Bryant said the past year offered an opportunity to grow, too. Yes, he's playing in a new offensive scheme that allows him to show off his throwing ability more, to prove to NFL scouts he can play at the next level. More than that, however, he's learned something about the type of person he wants to be, and the type of people he wants in his life.
"I'm kind of thankful that it happened to me," Bryant said this summer. "If you can be happy with yourself despite whatever comes to you -- nothing negative should make you feel less of yourself."
Swinney said he texted Bryant a few times, shortly after Bryant left the team. He has never heard back.
"He's on to what he's doing, and I pull for him," Swinney said. "I'm excited for him. But I'd make the same decision 1,000 times out of 1,000 times. That's my job."
ESPN's Edward Aschoff contributed to this story.