No matter how successful a quarterback is or how long he has been entrenched as a starter, the arrival of a blue-chip recruit and a run of ineffective performances can quickly land him on the bench.
It happened at powerhouse Alabama, where Jalen Hurts won 25 of his first 27 starts to start his career, then turned in a 3-of-8 passing performance in the national championship game and was replaced by freshman Tua Tagovailoa at halftime—the rest is history. After an offseason of questions dodged by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, Hurts has been regulated to a supporting role in the first four games of the 2018 season.
Two similar moves appear to have been made at the top of the ACC this week, as two quarterbacks that led their respective teams to the conference title game last season are set to be replaced by freshman signal callers. On Monday, Clemson true freshman Trevor Lawrence was named the starter for the Tigers’ Week 5 game against Syracuse, and Miami redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry took all of the first-team reps in the media viewing portion of the Hurricanes’ Monday practice, a break from the midweek norm that head coach Mark Richt downplayed in front of the media but marked a telling change after Perry starred in an easy win over FIU last Saturday.
Unless Duke unseats Miami in the Coastal Division or Clemson loses its vise-grip on first place in the Atlantic, it’s becoming increasingly likely that two freshman starting quarterbacks will square off for a conference championship in Charlotte, which has never happened in the 13-year history of the ACC title game. The last time any Power 5 title game feature two freshman QBs was the 2012 Pac-12 title game, when UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan earned the start in an eventual Stanford win.
After Deshaun Watson left for the NFL, Kelly Bryant emerged from a three-man competition before the 2017 season and led the Tigers to a 12–2 record and a playoff berth in his first year as a starter. However, it was apparent from the moment that Lawrence, a 6'5" five-star prospect, starred in Clemson’s spring game after enrolling in January that Bryant was in for a battle to hold onto his job.
Bryant held off Lawrence in fall camp and started the first four games of the season, while Lawrence got consistent snaps with the first-team offense, seeing extended action in the wins over Furman and Georgia Southern but yielding to Bryant in crunch time of a tight road win at Texas A&M.
It was Lawrence who shined in Saturday’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech, finishing 13-of-18 for 176 yards and four touchdowns, and that was all that Dabo Swinney needed to see to make the switch moving forward.
In justifying the decision to go to Lawrence, Swinney said Bryant did nothing wrong and maintained that “[Lawrence] has to play well. It’s not like we have a guy in Kelly Bryant who we don’t trust.”
Lawrence is not the runner Bryant is, which may be part of the reason Bryant initially remained the starter. But Lawrence has shown more effectiveness taking deep shots down the field, with eight completions of 20-plus yards and an average 10 yards per attempt.
Bryant is averaging a yard and a half less per attempt, and Swinney added that "it’s just pure productivity and data,” when further explaining the switch.
That productivity will be on full display, as well as maybe a more open playbook, when Lawrence gets his first start Saturday against surprising 4–0 Syracuse.
Over in Miami, Clemson’s conference title counterpart is also facing some unsettled quarterback questions, especially in its quest to make it back to Charlotte or have any hopes of making a run at a playoff berth.
The Hurricanes were thought to be returning to their nasty, dominating ways of decades past in 2017 when they won their first 10 games and introduced the nation to the since-copied turnover prop craze.
Maybe it was all smoke and mirrors, as they skated by due to a favorable home schedule and the defenses' skill at earning takeaways. But the trouble began with a late November trip to Pittsburgh, when Malik Rosier was actually benched in the fourth quarter en route to a 10-point loss and the ACC's chances of having two representatives in the playoff being shattered.
Miami then proceeded to lose its next two games and the first one of 2018, a blowout loss to LSU that had many questioning Rosier’s status.
Enter N’Kosi Perry. Perry is 6”4” and lanky at a listed 190 pounds, but there is no question he has more physical attributes than Rosier.
Perry received most of the snaps against Florida International, and according to coach Mark Richt that was the design all along. Whether that was due to the quality of opponent or just to see Perry do something other than rack up garbage time snaps, it put forth more questions than answers.
A redshirt freshman, Perry went 17 for 25 for 224 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against FIU. But more importantly, there was a flow to the offense that hadn’t been seen all season. Perry completed his first 10 passes of the game and showed why he has a bigger arm that Rosier and more escapability when facing a heavy rush.
The Hurricanes don’t have much time to make up their mind about a starter with North Carolina coming to town on Thursday. But Richt wasn’t about to give his opponents any hint, saying the clichéd, “We’re going to play the guy that gives us the best shot of winning.”
That guy should be Perry, and he is helped by a resurgent running game that has averaged 252 yards in its last three games after totaling only 83 in the loss to LSU.
Clemson’s path to another ACC title is fairly easy, as the No. 3 Tigers only face one currently ranked opponent, No. 22 Duke, for the rest of the season–something that affords Swinney the ability to make the switch to Lawrence.
For an ACC championship game rematch to happen, Miami must navigate a manageable schedule, including playing four of its final six games on the road.