CLEMSON, S.C. — Kelly Bryant believes he is prepared to Clemson’s starting quarterback and is ready to keep the Tigers playing at a national championship-level.
Tiger fans will be watching intently for any slip ups by 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior.
Bryant has sat on the bench the past two seasons studying former star Deshaun Watson, listening closely to what Watson had to say and mirroring his actions at practice. Now, Bryant is eager to make his own mark, staring in the Tigers season-opener against Kent State on Saturday.
Watson “did a lot of things, a lot of great things here,” Bryant said this week. “That’s the standard that’s been set, not only by Deshaun but by the past few guys that have come through here.”
Bryant understands that Clemson supporters will be breaking down nearly every decision he makes to see how if can duplicate Watson’s success. It will be challenge. Watson was the Houston Texans’ first-round draft pick and was 29-2 his last 31 starts with the Tigers — including a national title win over No. 1 Alabama last January.
Bryant’s breaking things down, too — one snap at a time.
“That’s the biggest thing that the coaches have emphasized in the quarterback room, just do our job and everything will take care of itself,” he said. “So it’s not pressure. The pressure comes when you start thinking too much and you’re trying to put too much pressure on yourself.”
Bryant arrived at Clemson from Calhoun Falls, about an hour’s drive from campus, and was among the top prep quarterbacks in South Carolina when he signed with Tigers. He accounted for 4,299 yards and 55 touchdowns his senior season at Wren High. With a strong, accurate arm and running back moves, some fans suggested in 2015 that Bryant should start over Watson, who was coming off an injury-filled freshman season.
But Bryant accepted early on that his time would come after Watson left. Bryant saw little action behind Watson and upperclassman Nick Schuessler his first two seasons, doing what he could to stay prepared if called on.
Once the title celebration died down on campus, Bryant began transforming himself into Watson’s successor while giddy Tiger fans gushed about the five-star rated, prototype passer coming in. Freshman Hunter Johnson from Indiana was dubbed by many the natural, high-profile successor to the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.
But they didn’t get to make the decision.
And it was Bryant who outfought Johnson and Zerrick Cooper to win the starting job.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants Bryant to do what he’s seen him do on the practice field in preparing for the season.
“If he’ll do 70 percent of what I’ve seen on the practice field, he’s going to be a really good player,” Swinney said. “We just haven’t had the chance to see him play.”
Interim Kent State coach Don Treadwell said his team doesn’t get a break facing Bryant over Watson because Clemson lands some of the most skilled players in the game.
“They just simply retool,” Treadwell said.
Defensive end Christian Wilkins asked Clemson fans to give the same love they did Watson to Bryant come Saturday.
“I’m really excited and have all the faith in Kelly to get the job done,” Wilkins said.
Bryant is grateful for all the support from teammates and coaches. He knows he’ll have to earn the adulation from the fans through his play.
“The game is all about performance so as the starting quarterback going out there, you’re going to have to perform every day, whether it’s in a game or in practice,” Bryant said.
Bryant recently caught with Watson on the phone. The two made small-talk, two old teammates chatting about various topics after a few months apart. Bryant hopes the lessons he learned from Watson will last much longer than the call.
“All eyes are going to be on me and the offense,” Bryant said. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what kind of player I am.”
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