CLEMSON, S.C. — When Tajh Boyd walked off the field of Sun Life Stadium following last week’s Orange Bowl win, it created a huge void in Clemson’s offense.
Boyd was a three-year starter for the Tigers and one of the most prolific quarterbacks in ACC history. He holds 53 Clemson and ACC single-game, single-season and career records. He is the ACC’s career leader in touchdown passes and touchdown responsibility (passing and rushing touchdowns combined) and is second in passing yardage behind former N.C. State star Philip Rivers.
Replacing him will not be easy, as a three-man derby to determine Clemson's next starting quarterback will be a huge storyline in spring football practices.
While rising senior Cole Stoudt and rising sophomore Chad Kelly have experience in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle system, the most intriguing prospect is incoming freshman Deshaun Watson.
Watson, who enrolled at Clemson this week, is one of the most highly touted quarterback prospects ever to sign with the Tigers' program. He is rated by 247Sports as the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospect and the No. 45 overall prospect.
Like Boyd, Watson is a dual-threat quarterback, capable of running and throwing with success. Boyd called him “a little brother to me” in November.
What does Watson have to do to claim the job and become Clemson’s starting quarterback when the Tigers face off with Georgia in the 2014 season opener? Let’s take a look.
Watson arrives in Clemson as a polished product. He led Gainesville (Ga.) High School to the Georgia AAAAA semifinals before falling to Tucker and coming up just short of a second consecutive state championship.
As a senior, Watson threw for 4,431 yards with 57 touchdowns and five interceptions, adding 1,057 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns.
He has a strong, accurate arm and a quick release with excellent intangibles. Unlike many high school quarterbacks, Watson is capable of calling his own plays at the line of scrimmage and audibling in and out of formations.
“He’s just a great prospect,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Watson in November. “A great leader, a winner, terrific skill set, especially for what we do. He fits our system perfectly. We’re excited to have him to come be a part of our program, no question about that.”
He caught Boyd’s attention, too.
“He’s a really humble kid, super intelligent, and I love the personality he has. It’s more than football,” Boyd said. “I’m excited about the kind of person (Clemson) is getting coming in. He’s coming in early and we’ve got some guys that can really play right now, who’ve proved they can play right now. I think it’ll be an interesting competition for sure.”
Beating out Stoudt and Kelly won’t be easy, however. Both showed flashes of brilliance while backing up Boyd this fall. Stoudt completed 47 of 59 passes for 415 yards and an astounding 79.7 percent completion rate while adding 58 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Kelly, a more athletic prospect, completed 10 of 17 passes for 58 yards in limited duty but also rushed for 117 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown run.
Stoudt will be beginning his fourth season in Morris’ offense while Kelly will be beginning his third. How does Watson catch up?
Study, study, study.
Starting this week he’ll have to learn Clemson's hurry-up, no-huddle offense very quickly, diving into his playbook and living in the film room while soaking up Morris' system.
Morris’ offense emphasizes good mechanics, good footwork and perhaps, above all else, taking care of the football. At each practice, “ball in jeopardy” situations—where a player puts the ball in danger of committing a turnover—are charted and tallied. Morris has pointed to Boyd’s improvement in those situations as a major reason for his growth as a quarterback from his freshman to sophomore seasons.
If Morris doesn’t trust you with the football, you aren’t getting on the field in crucial situations.
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Over spring practice and preseason drills, Watson must build trust with Morris and Swinney—something that Stoudt and, to an extent, Kelly—already have. He’ll need to show them that he can be counted on when the outcome truly matters and perform better than his more veteran cohorts.
“It’s going to be really fun to see this guy perform at this level,” Swinney said in November. “I think he’s going to be one of those guys, once it’s all said and done, just like this guy that’s leaving right now, he’ll leave his mark.”
How quickly will that happen? Well, now it’s really in Watson’s hands.
*Unless noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace