Clem­son Tigers thrive af­ter fresh­man QB’s pro­mo­tion

The Progress-Index Weekend - - SPORTSDESK - By Pete Ia­co­belli,

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The choice was clear for Clem­son coach Dabo Swin­ney last Septem­ber— fresh­man quar­ter­back Trevor Lawrence de­served to start over well-liked, well-re­spected se­nior Kelly Bryant.

It’s a move that could’ve led to dis­sen­sion, in-fight­ing and a di­vided locker room. In­stead, the switch started the sec­ond-ranked Tigers on a glide path to the na­tional cham­pi­onship game where they’ll take on de­fend­ing cham­pion Alabama on Mon­day night.

“It’s just a sit­u­a­tion where (Lawrence) has been in the game, he has been pro­duc­tive and to be fair to com­pe­ti­tion, just like we do at ev­ery po­si­tion, coach (Swin­ney) de­cided to name him the starter,” Clem­son co-of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Tony El­liott said.

Swin­ney in­sists, that de­spite Lawrence’s tal­ent, the swap wasn’t made with Alabama in mind.

“You’ve got to prove that you de­serve to be the starter this year,” he said Satur­day. “That’s just the cul­ture we have.”

Lawrence’s play has borne that out .

He’s thrown for 2,933 yards with 27 touch­downs with just four in­ter­cep­tions. Clem­son has av­er­aged more than 45 points and 540 yards a game since Lawrence took over against Syra­cuse in game five.

Swin­ney said Lawrence never acted like he didn’t be­long, show­ing a mix of con­fi­dence, poise and abil­ity that stood out. Swin­ney re­al­ized that last spring when he “saw how quickly (Lawrence) pro­cessed things, how easy it was for him,” the coach said.

The hard part for Swin­ney came in Septem­ber when he el­e­vated Lawrence to starter over Bryant.

The quar­ter­back se­lec­tion was a choice loom­ing since the 6-foot-6, strong-armed, long-haired Lawrence ar­rived on cam­pus. Two ex­pe­ri­enced re­serve passers in Zer­rick Cooper and Tucker Is­rael trans­ferred in Jan­uary. An­other five-star quar­ter­back in Hunter John­son left in May for North­west­ern af­ter go­ing through spring ball.

Bryant, who went 16-2 as a starter, led Clem­son to the At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence ti­tle and the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off a sea­son ago. But he strug­gled in the Tigers’ pass­ing game and a poor show­ing in the 24-6 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last year left the door wide open for spec­u­la­tors to pen­cil in Lawrence ahead of the pop­u­lar Bryant.

Bryant kept the job into the sea­son and started Clem­son’s first four games un­til Swin­ney knew what he had to do.

“At the end of the day, this is not mid­dle school,” Swin­ney said in Septem­ber. “There’s tough de­ci­sions that have to be made at his level and you have to do what’s best for the team.”

Some pro­grams might not have moved for­ward un­scathed af­ter such a switch. Clem­son All Amer­i­can de­fen­sive tackle Chris­tian Wilkins never had a doubt the Tigers would re­main on track.

“I’m sure a lot of you all would’ve liked more con­tro­versy,” Wilkins joked this week. “That’s more of a tes­ta­ment to our lead­er­ship. We’ve got a lot of older guys who’ve been around for a while, just ex­pe­ri­enced a lot and we weren’t go­ing to let that faze us.”

Wilkins said they all still love and re­spect Bryant, who has trans­ferred to Mis­souri, “but we weren’t go­ing to let that stop us.”

Wilkins, the 6-4, 315pound se­nior, went a long way to calm­ing any locker room con­cerns about the switch when he took Lawrence to break­fast the week of Bryant’s de­mo­tion. Wilkins down­plays the meet­ing — “I was go­ing to eat break­fast any­way,” he said — but Lawrence be­lieves it gave him in­stant cred­i­bil­ity to lead a vet­eran-stocked club.

“It meant a lot,” Lawrence said.

Things couldn’t have started worse for Lawrence and the Tigers when the fresh­man left with an in­jury be­fore half­time of his first col­lege start against Syra­cuse on Sept. 29 and the Tigers trailed 23-13 with less than 13 min­utes left. But Clem­son ral­lied with one-time sixth-string passer Chase Brice in the game and tail­back Travis Eti­enne rush­ing for two TDs down the stretch of the 27-23 win.

Lawrence threw two touch­down passes in his next start, a 63-3 win at Wake For­est, and has not slowed down since.

Swin­ney is pleased with Lawrence’s progress, but still hurts when think­ing about the quar­ter­back change. Bryant gave his all to the Tigers dur­ing his time there, Swin­ney said, but this was sim­ply a foot­ball de­ci­sion.

“I’m not go­ing to apol­o­gize for do­ing my job,” Swin­ney said.


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