When DeShaun Watson enrolled at Clemson in January, he brought with him some of the highest expectations ever associated with a Tiger quarterback.
The Gainesville, Ga., native is considered one of the top prospects in the 2014 recruiting class.
He is rated by 247Sports as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect and No. 41 prospect overall, and he accounted for over 13,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in his high school career.
While Watson will begin this fall as senior Cole Stoudt’s backup, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has made it clear that the highly touted freshman will see playing time.
It isn’t a matter of if Watson will start in his Clemson career, it’s a matter of when—which begs the question: How does a program like Clemson, with such a can’t-miss prospect, build a quarterback depth chart behind Watson?
Pretty well, it turns out.
Watson’s presence hasn’t stopped Bryant or Israel from casting their lot with the Tigers, and it is a fascinating study in how a program’s depth chart impacts a star recruit’s ultimate collegiate choice.
Let’s examine how Clemson’s quarterback depth chart came together.
With Tajh Boyd, the program’s most prolific quarterback ever, the ACC’s No. 2 all-time passing yards leader and all-time touchdowns leader off to the NFL as a sixth-round pick of the New York Jets, the Tigers had a quarterback opening this spring, as well as depth-chart issues.
Stoudt, who served as Boyd’s backup for the last three seasons, entered as the leader in a three-man derby with sophomore Chad Kelly and Watson and did nothing to lose it.
Behind them? Former walk-on Nick Schuessler.
The depth-chart situation didn’t scare Israel. He committed to Clemson on Feb. 3, two days before 2014’s national signing day, picking the Tigers over offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Memphis, Indiana and South Florida.
“I don’t think (Clemson’s coaches) knew how serious I was about it at first, but then they kind of realized, ‘Hey this kid is serious, and we ought to pursue this,’ “ Israel told the Orlando Sentinel.
He was indeed serious, and Clemson had its first quarterback commitment for 2015.
They said, ‘If this is what you want, then we’re going to fully accept your commitment and we’re excited. You’re the No. 1 guy on our board and we’d be jumping for joy to have you.’ After that I realized that’s where I want to spend my next four or five years of college, right there.
Swinney made it clear that he wanted to take another quarterback in the 2015 class. Stoudt was a senior, but with Watson and Israel on board already, who would it be?
Speculation centered around Bryant, an athletic 6’4” prospect playing at Wren High School, 20 miles from Clemson’s campus.
Bryant had interest in Clemson, but the Tigers weren’t alone. He also had offers from Florida, Duke, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, North Carolina, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Would he be content going to Clemson and fighting it out on the depth chart, or would he be happier being someone else’s top priority?
Kelly helped clear up that quandary.
While Kelly was battling Stoudt for the starting role, he appeared to be No. 2 on the depth chart, behind Stoudt and ahead of Watson.
Then, the Orange and White Game happened.
Kelly threw a pair of bad interceptions then, late in the first half, argued visibly with offensive coordinator Chad Morris and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott after his team elected to punt instead of going for a fourth-and-shot inside the 50-yard line.
He didn’t play the rest of the day, and two days later, he was dismissed from the program following a meeting with Swinney (he has since transferred to East Mississippi Community College).
Three days later, Bryant committed to Clemson.
Did Kelly’s departure play a role? Not really, he told 247Sports:
It didn’t play much of a part. I trusted the coaching staff there at Clemson. They have been honest with me since they started recruiting me, and that was one of the major components of me committing. Being short on quarterbacks was a factor, but it wasn’t the major factor.”
Why did it matter?
With Kelly on the roster, he would’ve been assured to play behind Stoudt this fall, or challenge for the job, and Watson would have been a likely redshirt.
Now, Stoudt will start and Watson will play, burning his redshirt.
Clemson has also received a commitment from Stanford senior Max Olson, who will play this fall as a graduate transfer.
In 2015, Stoudt and Olson will be gone, and Watson will be a sophomore.
Behind him, either Bryant or Israel can back him up, with the third quarterback redshirting, creating further depth chart separation.
There is time for one of the two 2015 signees to have two potential years as a starting quarterback or another to have three, depending on how the competition shakes out down the road.
Every quarterback enters with confidence, thinking they can be “the guy.” Otherwise, they wouldn’t be qualified to lead a team into difficult situations.
How the Tigers’ QB depth chart shakes out from here is anyone’s guess. But it is fascinating how one move, one sour attitude can make such a difference.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.