Neither Side Is in the Wrong in Kelly Bryant's Abrupt Transfer From Clemson

Kelly Bryant did everything that was asked of him at Clemson. Then someone better showed up, and everyone ultimately did what was best for them.
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In the past few months, we hired two people here at Sports Illustrated to cover college football. If you’ve been checking bylines, then you already know Laken Litman and Ross Dellenger are fantastic. They’re young, creative and seem to have limitless energy. I love working with them, but I also know what this might mean.

Eventually, they could render me obsolete here because they might just be better than me.

I turn 40 later this week, so I’ve thought a little about professional mortality lately. If I don’t step up my game, the youngsters will take over my role and I’ll have to find a way to replace that paycheck. This isn’t a lament. It’s just reality. We’ve had plenty of layoffs in the 10 years I’ve worked here, and every day is another test to prove our utility to the company. I imagine many of you reading this are in similar professional situations.

So I empathize with quarterback Kelly Bryant. He toiled behind Deshaun Watson at Clemson for two years. He won the starting job as a junior. He went 12–2 in his first season as the starter. He did everything that was asked of him by his coaches and by his teammates.

Then someone better showed up.

It probably took one practice for Bryant and for Clemson coaches and players to realize that freshman Trevor Lawrence eventually would surpass Bryant. Lawrence has an arm that simply doesn’t come along very often. His pure physical tools might be better than Watson’s, and Watson was a generational talent in college football. So once Lawrence set foot on the practice field, it was simply a matter of how long Bryant could fight off the charge using a combination of experience, savvy and his own physical gifts.

Bryant lost that fight this week. The offense didn’t move effectively against Georgia Tech with Bryant at the helm in the first quarter. Playing against a team that can milk the clock and limit an offense’s possessions, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney switched to Lawrence in the second quarter. Lawrence threw touchdown passes on three of his first four possessions, and the Tigers put the game out of reach by halftime. On Monday, Swinney announced Lawrence would start this week against Syracuse. Bryant was understandably upset. So Swinney gave him Monday off. When Bryant didn’t practice Tuesday, it was obvious something was up.

Wednesday morning, news broke that Bryant had decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, which allows players who have played four or fewer games in a year to save a season of eligibility. This will allow Bryant, who graduated from Clemson in May, to transfer to another school and use the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to play next season.

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This is the part where this becomes a very bad Internet sports column, because Internet sports columns are supposed to stake out a strong position on one side of an issue and bash the other side. But Swinney isn’t wrong here, and neither is Bryant. They’re both doing what’s best for them. Swinney’s job is to put the team in the best position to win. Bryant’s job is to play as well as he can and manage his finite college eligibility in the most prudent manner possible.

“I’m obviously saddened and disappointed that he’s chosen to leave the team,” Swinney said on Wednesday’s ACC teleconference. “But I really have nothing bad to say about Kelly Bryant. He’s one of the best young people I’ve ever been around.”

Swinney could have chosen to be a bad guy this week, but he didn’t. He could have started Bryant against Syracuse, replaced him with Lawrence mid-game and then Bryant would have been stuck. By making the decision when he did, Swinney gave Bryant the most possible options. “That’s not how we operate here,” Swinney said of the possibility of playing Bryant this week to trap him at Clemson. “That’s not who we are.”

Bryant is understandably upset. “They asked me how I felt about it,” Bryant told The Greenville (S.C.) News on Wednesday. “I was like, ‘I’m not discrediting Trevor. He’s doing everything asked of him, but on my side of it, I feel like I haven’t done anything to not be the starter. I’ve been here. I’ve waited my turn. I’ve done everything y’all have asked me to do, plus more.’ I’ve never been a distraction. I’ve never been in trouble with anything. To me, it was kind of a slap in the face.”

This is the part where Bryant, a college student, learns a lesson that likely will help him in the working world. The decision wasn’t a slap in the face, because the job description wasn’t “do everything we ask,” “don’t be a distraction” or “don’t get in trouble.” The job description was “be the best quarterback on the roster.” The good news is Bryant now will have a chance to prove everyone wrong. He’ll be the starter somewhere next year, and if he’s that good, he’ll light up the scoreboard.

Now all eyes will turn to Tuscaloosa, where a similar situation is playing out with a slight twist. We’ve still heard no definitive word from Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts that he plans to play the rest of the season after playing in the Crimson Tide’s first four games. Hurts went 26–2 as Alabama’s starter before he was supplanted by Tua Tagovailoa, who despite an admittedly small sample size looks as if he might be the best quarterback to ever play at the school that produced Joe Namath and Ken Stabler.

But Hurts is a junior. He is on track to graduate in December. Any decision now would be a choice between the option to shut it down now and play two seasons somewhere else or pushing the decision to January and still having a year to play elsewhere if he chose to leave Alabama. Nothing that we’ve seen thus far suggests Hurts will shut it down. He seems to be comfortable in his current role, and the chance to win a second national title with his friends is an awfully strong motivating factor.

Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN last week that he intended to play Hurts the rest of the season, but Saban’s interests don’t completely align with Hurts’s interests. Until Hurts says it or Hurts plays in a fifth game, we’ll wonder. But either of those confirmations could come this week.

The new redshirt rule has added an interesting wrinkle to the end of the season’s first month, but don’t expect too many complaints from coaches. They were the ones who pushed for the rule change in the first place.

Swinney, who now has to prepare redshirt freshman Chase Brice to be the backup, certainly isn’t going to complain about Bryant or about Bryant’s decision. “Wherever he decides to go is going to get a quality quarterback and a quality young man,” Swinney said. “We appreciate everything Kelly gave this program while he was here.”

Bryant now gets to choose his next school, but he should do it understanding one thing. The job description remains the same. It’s still “be the best quarterback on the roster.” Just as my daily job description is “be the best college football writer on the roster.” Because no matter what you choose to do, there’s always someone younger, hungrier and maybe better coming to take your spot.