CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It is the waning moments of happy hour on the first Friday in December. In roughly 24 hours, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant will complete his first 15 throws in the ACC Championship Game and lead the Tigers to a 38-3 victory over Miami, securing the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff for the defending national champions.
He'll look every bit the player who has somehow lived up to and even exceeded near-impossible expectations. A joyous, supersized encore to Deshaun Watson.
But in this moment, two Clemson fans at the Charlotte Marriott SouthPark hotel bar would rather talk about Hunter Johnson, the Tigers true freshman who was widely regarded as one of the nation's most talented quarterbacks last fall. They move on to Trevor Lawrence, a quarterbacking prodigy and a Clemson commit headed their way come January. Watson, the national championship-winning quarterback, is likewise mentioned, as he will be on South Carolina barstools for decades to come.
Finally, Bryant's name surfaces, if only momentarily. And then, with glasses half-full, it seems to linger there for a while.
A large man in a bright orange uniform is dancing in perfect rhythm. As the scoreboard counts down to the start of Clemson-Miami, Bryant shifts his body back and forth as music is blasted over the Bank of America Stadium speakers.
It is less than an hour before the biggest game of his life, and Bryant looks almost too comfortable. He dances playfully with his teammates while frequently flashing his Hollywood smile. The moment feels smaller and less significant with each throw.
"He's a fun guy," wide receiver Hunter Renfrow will say after the game. "His big thing this year is to be himself. He's not trying to be Deshaun. He's trying to be Kelly Bryant. I think he's having a lot of fun with that, and I think that's working for him. Anytime he's in a good mood and he's having success, everyone else is having success."
One doesn't have to search hard to see the differences between Bryant and Watson. It begins with the shape of the men themselves. While Clemson has a handful of unique athletes on its roster, Bryant stands out from the moment he throws on the uniform.
Had he not been gifted the arm that he has, Bryant could've played linebacker or defensive end. What is clear, even as he lobs passes to fellow quarterback Zerrick Cooper from 15 yards away, is that Bryant is every bit the 6'4" and 220 pounds listed on his Clemson bio. It's rare when a player's listed weight on his bio doesn't capture how large he is in the flesh, but that is indeed the case.
His body is sculpted and powerful, which Clemson has put to good use the past few months. Bryant is first on the team in rushing attempts (173), third in rushing yards (646) and second in rushing touchdowns (11). His 3.7 yards per carry mirrors Watson's output (3.8 YPC) during his final season, but the carries are different.
While Bryant has the speed to break free from most defensive players, his style is more direct and brutish than Watson's was at Clemson.
"I just tried to go out there and just tried to create my own game and just tried to be my own quarterback because I knew I couldn't—I knew I wasn't going to be Deshaun," Bryant says. "I knew I was a different player than Deshaun, and so I didn't want to try to play like him."
At the moment, Watson is the better passer, although the gap between the two is not as wide as one might think. After all, Bryant, a true junior, is just putting the finishing touches on his first season as a starter.
Watson passed for 4,593 yards his junior year to Bryant's 2,678. During that junior season, however, Watson threw the ball 217 times more than Bryant has. Bryant's completion percentage (67.4) is almost identical to Watson's in 2016 (67.0), while Watson's yards per attempt (7.9) is a half-yard better than Bryant's (7.4).
"Earlier in the year, maybe he missed some throws, but he's a guy who never lacked confidence," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott says of Bryant's progression this season. "Good or bad, he goes back to work. But there is no doubt he has a lot of confidence in himself, and our offense has a lot of confidence in him. That's pretty special."
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, isn't Bryant's size or arm or stats, but the way the two quarterbacks led their teams to the playoff. One did it through a developed sense of invincibility; the other through a goofiness and the outward confidence that has existed all along, but was largely out of sight.
The call came to Jeff Tate from one of Wren High School's guidance counselors back in 2013. A soon-to-be high school junior by the name of Kelly Bryant was transferring into the Piedmont, South Carolina, school, and he wanted information on football workouts.
Tate, the Wren football head coach, knew the name. Bryant had played as a true freshman and had a growing reputation around the state. "Describe him for me," Tate asked her curiously.
She told Tate that the player was tall. She took it one step further, saying he looked an awful lot like Cam Newton.
"Yep, that's him," Tate responded, anxious to meet his new quarterback. Although the incoming transfer wasn't as big as Newton, a player Tate has stood next to in the past, his size was unmistakable.
"He could have played any position he wanted to," Tate says of Bryant. "He was that athletic. But because of his ability to throw and run along with his ability to digest the game of football, where else would you want him to play?"
In two years at Wren, Bryant threw 70 touchdown passes and for more than 6,000 yards. He rushed for more than 1,800 yards and even had a 74-yard touchdown reception. But beyond the numbers, Bryant served as a soothing voice during the team's most stressful moments.
When games appeared to be slipping away, there was Bryant by Tate's side. When a play needed to be made, Bryant would calmly approach his coach and promise a positive outcome one way or another.
"When I was growing up, they called it confidence," Tate says. "Now they call it swag."
The gestures, though understated, were enough to change the dynamic of an entire sideline. And away from those moments, Bryant smiled. The word "goofy" is used by current and former teammates when asked to describe the man who prefers to be known as "Kelly B."
No matter his demeanor, his talent was impossible to ignore. Tennessee, Florida, Florida State, Virginia Tech and others all hoped to land Bryant. One year after Clemson landed Watson, others assumed he wouldn't want to wait for Watson to leave.
It was an easy pitch: Don't go somewhere and get stuck behind Watson. But despite knowing he would likely sit until the team's starting quarterback departed, Bryant committed.
"When I recruited him, I didn't recruit him to be Deshaun," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says of Bryant. "That's what we do with all of our players. It was a dream of his to come to Clemson. He knew when he came in here that Deshaun was already here and rolling. But he embraced that. He came in and had to continue to develop."
Tate has noticed. "It took a special person to take the spot that Deshaun Watson had for three years," Tate says. "He's shown that by being patient, playing behind arguably the greatest player they'll ever have. But then again, who's to say he won't be the greatest player when he leaves there?"
Although he is no longer on the roster, Watson continues to have some influence on Clemson.
Throughout the season, he and Bryant have stayed in touch—exchanging texts on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes they're notes of congratulations on a good performance. Sometimes, they're messages wishing good luck. Sometimes, as in the instance of Watson's knee injury that ended his rookie season, they're merely a wave of positive thoughts.
But often the conversations are much simpler than that. "We're just catching up," Bryant says. "Just small talk, pretty much. Not really anything about football."
To the outside world, the task of replacing Watson has always felt like a large order, a task so imposing that it required recruiting a string of 5-star quarterbacks in back-to-back seasons who will soon litter Clemson's QB depth chart.
In truth, it never felt like Bryant would be a part of that plan. Not because he wasn't a commodity and a recruiting win at the time. But because the transition from one 5-star quarterback to the next felt natural to make. At least that was the working theory.
But Bryant, a 3-star prospect, changed that narrative. And he did so by being who he always was. Goofy. Fun. Gifted. Imperfect. Confident. It was the voice this team needed at precisely the right moment.
"He's one of the funniest and goofiest people on our team," wideout Deon Cain says. "And at the end of the day, we trust him. We all knew what type of player he was. When we know he's playing happy and with confidence, everybody can just follow him."
Bryant has never felt the need to hold back. Not because he wanted to do things differently, but because he knows no other way.
"When he was going into the season, it was Deshaun this and Deshaun that," wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud says. "But he's nothing like what Deshaun was—personality-wise and everything. Kelly embraces that. He always has a smile, and that has never changed."
He takes off just outside the 10-yard line, crossing just inside the pylon for Clemson's second touchdown in the ACC Championship Game. But rather than allow the scoreboard to tell the story, Bryant stands motionless as his wide receiver pretends to put an imaginary necklace over his head—mimicking (and mocking) Miami's now-infamous "Turnover Chain" celebration.
"That was me and Ray-Ray," Bryant will say later with an enormous smile. "He came up with it. It was pretty neat."
The spotlight on Clemson—and Bryant—is bright, and Bryant is soaking up every last moment.
As Clemson polishes off Miami on a dominant evening, Bryant finds a gray ACC Champions hat. He throws his hat on, cocks it sideways and pinballs between interviews and celebrations on the field.
When he accepts his MVP award and is interviewed on stage, Bryant cringes at his own answers as his teammates look on in laughter. It is equally awkward and endearing—a drastically different but still welcomed voice from one heard a year ago.
"It's Kelly B, baby!" Bryant yells into the microphone before he is engulfed by his teammates, off to the Sugar Bowl to write his own legacy against Alabama.
At least for one night, the talk of 5-star quarterbacks waiting in the wings is silenced. The heavy weight of the season that rested on Bryant slowly drifts away, as a new but familiar quest for Clemson begins.