Clemson coach Dabo Swinney went from having one of the best quarterback depth charts in the country to a nightmare at football’s most important position in record-breaking time. And while the Tigers battled back to ruin Syracuse’s upset bid and stay unbeaten, everyone was talking about the QB who wasn’t at Clemson Memorial Stadium.
Saturday’s game doubled as true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s first career start after Swinney made the switch from senior Kelly Bryant following last week’s win over Georgia Southern. Bryant subsequently announced that he would transfer, taking 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. That left two healthy scholarship quarterbacks on Clemson’s roster and set the stage for a dramatic few hours in Death Valley.
Late in the second quarter Lawrence was running down the sideline when he was hit awkwardly by Syracuse defensive back Evan Foster and was slow to get up. Following an evaluation in the injury tent, Lawrence went to the locker room and Clemson determined that he would not return for the second half.
Redshirt freshman Chase Brice, who was elevated from the third-string after Bryant left the program, played the rest of the game, leading Clemson back to a 27–23 win. Brice went 7-of-13 for 83 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, as the Tigers imposed their will on the ground. Before his injury, Lawrence had completed 10 of 15 passes for 93 yards.
Lawrence’s injury caps a tumultuous and awkward week within the Tigers program. Bryant informed Swinney of his decision to transfer via text message, then expressed his disappointment in an interview with The Greenville (S.C.) News: “They asked me how I felt about it,” Bryant said. “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.”
Swinney said on the ACC teleconference that he was “saddened and disappointed” that Bryant decided to leave the program, and that he’s “one of the best young people I’ve been around.”
At halftime of the Syracuse game, with Clemson trailing 16–7 and Lawrence ruled out, ESPN reporter Holly Rowe asked Swinney whether he’d welcome back Bryant, who SB Nation learned was still enrolled at the school as of Saturday, if he wanted to return to the team.
“Heck yeah,” Swinney said, according to Rowe. “I love that kid.”
Twitter was way ahead of him, with fans in high places, including U.N. ambassador and former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, weighing in.
The severity of Lawrence’s injury is unknown right now. He could be back next week, or the next, or the next. The Tigers’ remaining schedule is winnable and they are in perfect position to make a run at the College Football Playoff, especially if Lawrence returns soon. If Bryant were to come back, it’s easy to see the predicament he faced last week repeating itself the moment Lawrence returns to 100% health.
Bryant, who waited for his turn at Clemson behind Deshaun Watson, went 12–2 in his first year as a starter last season and led his team to the playoff, where the offense was stymied by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. After arriving on campus in the spring as an early enrollee, Lawrence proved to be the better passer. Through the first four games of the season, Bryant had two touchdowns and one interception in 54 pass attempts, while Lawrence scored nine touchdowns and threw two interceptions in 60. Clemson had even more talent on its depth chart earlier this summer, before former five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson transferred to Northwestern in June, and Brice, who steered the Tigers’ last-minute comeback, is a former four-star prospect himself. When Swinney announced Lawrence as his starter and Bryant left, it put Clemson at risk for a situation just like what happened Saturday.
Will Bryant give Clemson another shot, if the team really is welcoming him back? How long is that opportunity even open with Lawrence’s return date unknown? Swinney’s goodwill toward his former quarterback is admirable—and consistent, whether during midweek media interviews or amid the stress of a halftime deficit—despite the awkward exit. But Bryant’s situation likely does not change. He has made it clear he does not want to be the second choice.