Bryant could produce his own legacy at Clemson
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant has been viewed as a one-year bridge between two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville, Ga., the top national signee in the 2018 class.
Yet Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior from Calhoun Falls, S.C., has guided coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers to a No. 1 ranking and a third consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. Clemson is coming off a resounding 38-3 victory over Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Dec. 2 — when Bryant completed 23 of 29 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown and also had an 11-yard rushing score — and will face No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night.
Not too shabby for a perceived temporary fix.
“We had a lot of critics and naysayers before the season who said we had lost a lot,” Bryant said during a news conference this past week in New Orleans. “I also heard that I wasn’t a quarterback and that I couldn’t play here and that I was either going to transfer or change positions. We all just embraced it and went to work.”
Bryant entered this season having played in 12 career games for the Tigers. Most of his stats had been compiled on the ground, as his 23 carries for 156 yards for last season’s national champions resulted in a team-high 6.8-yard average.
This season, Bryant has completed 244 of 362 passes (67.4 percent) for 2,678 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, while also rushing 173 times for 646 yards (3.7) and 11 scores.
“First of all, he’s a big man,” outgoing Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “He can run. He’s a great athlete, and he understands their offense. He’s been in their system. He’s been behind Deshaun Watson, so I’m sure he’s learned a lot.
“These guys do a good job of spreading the ball around. They stretch you with their RPO (run-pass option) game, and when he’s running the ball, it’s a lot like the wildcat, because there are a lot of lead blockers.”
Pruitt also said Bryant can “make all the throws,” adding another contrasting view to those who felt that transitioning from Watson to a former three-star prospect could be problematic.
“I really hadn’t played much for a lot of people to tell me to switch positions,” Bryant said. “I was like, ‘Just give me a chance.’ I tried not to pay attention to all that stuff, but it was like a slap in the face.”
The Tigers have scored at least 24 points in every game this season with the exception of the victorious 14-6 defensive slugfest against Auburn on Sept. 9, and Bryant’s value was most notable when he wasn’t playing midway through the year.
After leaving a 28-14 win over Wake Forest on Oct. 7 with an ankle injury in the third quarter, Bryant sustained a concussion six days later at Syracuse late in the first half. The Tigers suffered their only defeat of the season, 27-24, but had an open date the following weekend before facing Georgia Tech on Oct. 28.
Bryant threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Deon Cain within the first two minutes of a 24-10 downing of the Yellow Jackets, which became the first of the six straight wins Clemson has carried to New Orleans.
“After that game, we came together and said we didn’t want the loss to define us,” Bryant said. “Coach Swinney told us we still had our goals in front of us.”
On Monday night, Bryant will face Crimson Tide defenders he said are “always in the right place” and “don’t do anything to hurt themselves.” He has talked frequently this season with Watson — whose standout rookie year with the NFL’s Houston Texans was cut short by injury — and that includes recently.
The 6-2, 221-pound Watson had big outings in the past two national championship games against Alabama, leading the Tigers to a combined 1,061 yards and 75 points, but this will be Bryant’s stage, and he plans to savor it.
“This season has been surreal,” he said. “It’s been a blessing. It’s been a joy to be a part of. I’m just going to soak it up and embrace it, because you never know when you’re going to get another opportunity.”
Even though Swinney and Alabama coach Nick Saban have new contracts that run through 2024, there is still the question of whether Swinney would head back to Tuscaloosa if the 66-yearold Saban retired. Swinney played receiver for the Crimson Tide from 1989 to 1992, beginning his career as a walk-on and ending it with a national championship.
Will Swinney, Dabo’s son and a freshman receiver for the Tigers, does not subscribe to that possibility.
“I wouldn’t say I necessarily see that happening,” the younger Swinney said Saturday in a news conference. “We love it at Clemson, and he’s invested. Alabama already has so many championships and stuff.
“We’re building something really special here, and my dad helped create that and has a bunch of good staff around him. He loves it here.”
That’s a wrap
Alabama conducted its final Sugar Bowl practice Saturday afternoon, working out in helmets and shorts in the Superdome. The Crimson Tide will hold a walkthrough today, with Saban and Swinney scheduled to have a final news conference.
Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6524.
Clemson junior quarterback Kelly Bryant dives into the end zone against North Carolina State for one of his 11 rushing touchdowns this season. Bryant and the No. 1 Tigers face No. 4 Alabama on Monday night in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal.