CLEMSON, S.C. – Dabo Swinney had already heard the old quarterback cliché.
At a recent press conference to wrap up Clemson’s 2013 football season, the first question lobbed at the Tigers’ head coach concerned the quarterback situation and if he’d use a two-quarterback system.
“Somebody asked the other day if I’d consider playing two,” Swinney said. “Well, sure, but there’s the old adage that if you don’t have one, you have none. That may be very true, but the situation here is that we have some really good players and some great talent at that position, but there’s always competition.”
Swinney is open to using a two-quarterback system, at least early on, to replace Tajh Boyd as Clemson’s signal-caller.
One look at Clemson’s 2014 schedule released Wednesday suggests that Swinney and his staff would be wise to settle on a starting quarterback sooner rather than later.
Two of the Tigers’ most difficult road trips will happen in the season’s first three games, an incredibly difficult task to tackle with any first-time starting quarterback, much less a duo.
Picking a stable starter could give Clemson its best chance for success in a pair of hostile environments.
Whoever replaces Tajh Boyd has huge shoes to fill. Boyd finished his collegiate career as the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and No. 2 in passing yardage, behind only former N.C. State standout Philip Rivers. He holds 58 Clemson and ACC single-game, single-season and career records and led the Tigers to their first BCS win and the program’s first ACC championship since 1991.
Swinney has three choices. Rising senior Cole Stoudt served as Boyd’s backup the past three seasons: He was highly efficient in 2013, completing 47 of 59 passes (79.7 percent) for 415 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Rising sophomore Chad Kelly recovered from a spring ACL tear to complete 10 of 17 passes for 58 yards in mop-up duty, adding 117 rushing yards and a 38-yard rushing touchdown.
And then there’s incoming freshman Deshaun Watson, who has already enrolled at Clemson and will go through spring practice with his new teammates.
Considered a 4-star quarterback by 247Sports and the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback recruit, Watson is a prolific player. As a junior at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, he rolled up 4,024 passing yards with 50 passing touchdowns and eight interceptions, adding 1,441 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground.
The trio will compete in spring practice for the position, although Swinney has set no public timetable for naming Boyd’s successor.
“I’m really looking forward to it because I think we have great candidates,” he said. “ I see these guys working. I’ve seen Chad Kelly out on the field doing drills by himself. I had to go do a little video over in the indoor practice facility, and there’s Cole Stoudt working by himself, doing drills. Those are things that you like to see because you know you’ve got guys that really want to be the guy and that they are going to go above and beyond to give themselves a chance to win the job.
“And then you throw in Deshaun Watson, who is as talented of a guy as we’ve ever signed here. It’s exciting. At the end of the day, we are going to have a guy ready to go when it comes time to play, but we’ve got a long way to go before we figure all of that out.”
In two previous quarterback searches, Swinney has had a clear-cut quarterback before the season began. In 2009, he picked Kyle Parker over Willy Korn in fall practice, although Korn’s shoulder injury made that an easy choice.
When Parker left after two seasons to pursue a professional baseball career with the Colorado Rockies, there was no doubt that Swinney would anoit Boyd as his successor, as Boyd had relieved an ineffective or injured Parker several times in the second half of the 2010 season.
Swinney won’t rule out using two quarterbacks, at least initially, if they can provide the entire package that Chad Morris’ offense needs together.
“I wouldn’t concede anything, but once you go through the whole situation, if you have a clear-cut starter, then that’s the way it is,” he said. “If you don’t have a clear-cut starter and you’ve got two guys that bring different strengths and you need that combination to win—you look at Duke and the year they had and they played two different quarterbacks in different situations.
“Ideally, you’d like to have one guy that’s clear-cut and it’s obvious, but who knows, but at the end of the day if you’ve got a couple of guys that can go win for you, I don’t have any problem with that. There’s just way too much to get settled before we can even think about that.”
Clemson’s early schedule only complicates matters. The Tigers open Aug. 30 at Georgia in a likely matchup of Top 25 teams, and, following Sept. 6’ s home date with FCS South Carolina State and an open date, they travel to Tallahassee for a Sept. 20 showdown with defending national champion Florida State.
Sanford Stadium and Doak Campbell Stadium are among college football’s more harrowing road environments for an experienced starting quarterback, much less someone taking his first snaps as “the man” under center.
The Florida State matchup will likely determine the ACC Atlantic Division champion, with the loser left to fight their way back into position for one of the four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff system.
It is a season-defining game and one where Clemson will need as many points as possible from Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
Morris’ offense works best when it develops a rhythm, and that can be difficult with a dual-quarterback system.
If no one seizes the job as their own during preseason practice, a two-quarterback offense is a possibility at Georgia. But for the sake of the 2014 season, Swinney would be wise to settle on one quarterback as quickly as possible and then get out of the way.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace