CLEMSON, S.C. — Cole Stoudt doesn’t hide from the topic.
He embraces it.
And really, does he have any choice?
It has been said that, in sports, there’s nothing worse than being the man who follows “The Man.”
Well, that’s exactly what Stoudt is doing.
When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced last week that Stoudt would begin the 2014 season as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, he gave the redshirt senior a great honor. He also bestowed a huge responsibility on him.
How do you replace a guy like Tajh Boyd? Boyd was the face of the program. A guy who led Clemson to its most successful stretch since the Danny Ford era, a guy who left holding 52 ACC and Clemson single-game, single-season and career records, the leading touchdown passer in ACC history and its No. 2 all-time passer behind N.C. State’s Philip Rivers.
How do you replace him?
By being yourself while applying what you’ve picked up in three seasons as Boyd’s backup.
“It’s just everything I’ve learned over the years, with the coaches and with Tajh,” Stoudt said this week. “He’s shown me how to be a positive example for players, how to be a leader and motivate everyone. I think I’ve learned from Tajh and the coaches to step up and be that guy.”
Over the last four seasons, Clemson experienced a football renaissance, and Boyd was nothing short of a cornerstone.
When Swinney was hired as the full-time head coach in late 2008, Boyd was his first commitment.
Over the last three seasons, Clemson went 32-8, with three consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, the first time that has happened since 1987-90. The Tigers won the program’s first ACC title since 1991, the program’s first BCS bowl game (a 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State) and won 11 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.
Boyd finished tied for the most wins by a quarterback in Clemson history. He won eight games against Top 25 teams and five against Top 10 teams. He became the first quarterback in ACC history with at least 10,000 career passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards and is the only quarterback in league history to throw at least 30 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons.
All the while, Stoudt watched patiently and waited his turn.
He had a good role model to lean on: Stoudt’s father, Cliff, spent 15 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL and USFL. His first stop was in Pittsburgh, where he spent three seasons as a backup to Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.
Cliff took over as the starter in 1984, but things didn’t go well. The Steelers started 9-2 but slumped to a 10-6 finish, and Stoudt threw 12 touchdowns against 21 interceptions, completing 51.7 percent of his passes.
He then spent two years in the USFL before returning to the NFL as a backup with the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys.
His father’s experience was very helpful to Cole.
“Me and my dad, we really connected on that,” he said. “Terry Bradshaw’s one heck of an athlete, winning Super Bowls and everything. My dad knows how I was feeling, he may have had a little more edge on it, but I’m going to do what I can do, be the best I can be for my level. He knew what I was talking about. He knew I had to go in every day and compete to be the starter.”
When Cole has been called upon, he has delivered.
Against Boston College in 2011, Boyd went to the turf with a serious-looking hip injury and was carted from the sidelines to the locker room. Enter Stoudt, who completed six of 10 passes for 37 yards and sealed the Tigers’ victory.
Last fall, he completed 79.7 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 166.7 passer efficiency rating.
“I was prepared and felt comfortable,” he said. “It’s just preparing to be the starter every day. It helped me improve myself as a player and be part of this team.”
He has no career starts, but Stoudt feels he’s ready for the next step.
“It’s very helpful,” he said. “With the more experience you have, the more comfortable you are in the game, the reads start to slow down and everything becomes easier for you. The more comfortable you are with the whole offense, the experience, being able to [block] that out, it’s very much keeping a calm level at all times. Control the situation and get your team in the end zone.”
Stoudt never wavered. Not when Boyd considered leaving for the NFL following the 2012 season, ultimately returning for his senior season. And not when Swinney placed him in a three-quarterback race this spring alongside mercurial sophomore Chad Kelly and talented freshman DeShaun Watson.
Stoudt outperformed both, with Kelly’s fate ultimately being sealed in the spring game. He was pulled from the game after questioning a coaching decision and dismissed from the team two days later following a meeting with Swinney.
Swinney says Stoudt doesn’t have a “lifetime contract” with Watson behind him, but he has earned his opportunity.
“He’s prepared every week for three years to be the starter,” Swinney said. “He was a rolled ankle away from having to perform. He’s been groomed to be a quarterback his whole life. It’s in his DNA. He gets it. He’s matured greatly over the last three years. He’s very unselfish, a real team guy. He could have started at a lot of places, but he’s been a great backup for Tajh Boyd and always ready when called upon.”
Swinney thinks Stoudt “is capable of playing at the next level,” and this year is his chance to show pro scouts.
“No question he has a huge sense of urgency,” he said. “He’ll only have one great year. He’s going to have to perform at a high level to earn that opportunity.”
He’ll also have to do so with a revamped group of receivers. Juniors Sammy Watkins (Clemson’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns) and Martavis Bryant declared for the NFL draft, with Watkins expected to be a top-five overall pick.
Senior Adam Humphries (41 receptions, 483 yards, 2 TD) is the top returning receiver, while redshirt junior Charone Peake had emerged as a starter before tearing his ACL last fall. Sophomore Mike Williams is also promising, as are a trio of true freshman early enrollees: Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott.
Now, Stoudt’s job is to develop the same connection with his receivers as Boyd had with Watkins and Bryant.
“We have multiple receivers we can hit. Especially throughout spring, I developed a huge stride in chemistry,” he said. “Day 1 to what it is now, it’s completely different. We’ll be working on it all summer. We all compete to make this team better. We’re constantly working on footwork, routes and being on the same page every day. Come fall we’re going to show the coaches ‘Hey, we’ve been working and we’re ready for this season.’”
There is no questioning Stoudt’s motivation. He is finally getting his chance to replace The Man. And he only has one shot at getting it right.
“[Swinney told me], ‘All right, you’re the man going into the fall,’” Stoudt said. “‘Keep doing what you’re doing constantly and improving yourself every day, making the team better.’ At first I was really happy, but now I’ve got to get to work and develop a team. We’re going to strive to be our best."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace