As Deshaun Watson glided through the masses gathered for the “Tiger walk” before every Clemson home game, smiling and shaking hands with hordes of fans, a pair of curious eyes almost always followed his every move.
Kelly Bryant was taking mental notes, learning everything it took to be a starting quarterback for one of the nation’s top programs. In the video room, Bryant split his attention between absorbing the nuances of game plans and watching how Watson dealt with all of it. But Bryant knew Clemson coach Dabo Swinney required more of the role.
It was all part of Bryant’s preparation for an unenviable task – following in the footsteps of a campus legend.
“The biggest thing I took from that was just how he handled himself,” said Bryant, who earned the starting job before the season for No. 2 Clemson, which playsSaturday night at No. 12 Virginia Tech (4-0). “Of course, everybody knew his name and knew who he was, but I watched how he engaged with people. …Nowit’s my turn to step into that role.
Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior, isn’t a Watson clone. He isn’t the passer Watson is, nor was hethe gem of the recruiting class like Watson was when he showed up at Clemson in 2014.
That’s not to say Bryant was an afterthought coming out of Wren High in Piedmont, S.C., just 24 miles east of Clemson. While Watson was considered by most recruiting analysts as one of the nation’s top twoquarterbacks, Bryant was considered a top-30 the QBin the ’15 class.
Bryant had offers from Virginia Tech, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina State, South Carolina, UNC, Mississippi, Duke, Georgia Tech and others. South Carolina offered him first. Clemson came along second.
So, with Watson already on the roster, what compelled Bryant to turn down overtures from other strong programs ?
The truth is he never fretted much about the Watson factor.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Man, why would you go there? They already had Deshaun there,’” said Bryant, who has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 873 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions to go along with 268 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in his first four starts. “I didn’t really even look at it that way.
“I looked at where the best place was for me off the field, where could I get the best coaching and where could I grow as a person and as a man, not just as a football player.”
Bryant’s game was still developing when he got to Clemson, but the coaches knew what kind of person they were getting. One of the relationships Bryant treasures most began at Wren in an unexpected way.
Transferring before his junior year to Wren, where he passed for more than 6,300 yards and 69 touchdowns and ran for more than 1,900 yards and 33 additional touchdowns , Bryant said he struck up a conversation with Tanner Duniho and his mother, Paula, at the school’s introductory open house. Tanner , who was also about to start his junior year, has Down syndrome.
“I didn’t know anybody other than some of the guys I played football with during summer workouts,” Bryant said. “So, I was just trying to get to know people. … His mom saw me standing near him and said to him, ‘Hey, this is going to be your friend. He’s going to watch out for you.’”
A few weeks into his junior year, Bryant spotted Tanner eating lunch. Bryant sat down next to him and cultivated what has been a lasting friendship.
“It’s just a sweet thing,” said Bryant, adding he touches base with Tannerevery week or two . “He’s been more of a blessing to me than vice versa. ”
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott was instantly impressed when he heard about Bryant’s connection with Tanner .
“He’s a confident young man, but he has a great ability to be confident but also humble at the same time,” Scott said. “He’s got a great attitude, loves to have fun. People are attracted to him, very similar to when Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson were here.”
Despite putting himself in position to take over for Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who left after leading the Tigers to the national championship as a junior season , Bryant still had to earn the job.
“He was a little bit different than Deshaun in that he was more of an athlete than he was a true quarterback and passer,” Scott said. “Deshaun coming out high school was probably more of a passer than he was a runner of the football. Kelly really had to work on his passing game and throwing and accuracy and all those types of things … for what we do in our passing game, we knew that Kelly would be a great fit for that, if he could handle everything else and win the job.”
Bryant came out of spring practices ahead of redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson, an early enrollee, but didn’t take ownership of the starting job until August.
His mastery of an offense that was transitioning after the departures of Watson, running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott was apparent in the preseason.
“He has been here for the past two years and he’s sat in the room for all the game plans,” Swinney said. “He’s been on the headsets. He understands game situations. He had a great model in Deshaun Watson to pay attention to every day as far as how he prepared, how he handled success, how he handled adversity, how he handled the media, all that type of stuff. So that part, I think has been helpful. ”
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente finds Bryant’s willingness to keep grinding as he awaited an opportunity to play refreshing.
“In today’s instant-gratification society, we don’t see that enough, in my opinion,” Fuente said, “so I think it speaks volumes about him, and now he’s getting his chance.”
Bryant has already passed two formidable tests. He threw for 181 yards and ran for59 and two touchdowns Sept. 9 in Clemson’s 14-6 win against Auburn. The following Saturday, hecompleted 22 of 32 passes for 316 and a touchdown and scored two rushing touchdowns in a47-21 win at Louisville.
“I’m not going to put this guy in the same category with Deshaun right now, who I thought really was the best college football player in the country last year,” Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I do believe (Bryant) has a lot of the same qualities, though, as far as good arm strength, he makes good throws down the field, he seems to make good decisions with the ball in his hands. He’s dynamic and explosive. So, those are the similarities.”
Still, Bryant hasn’t faced the kind of pressure he’ll see Saturday in prime time in rabid Lane Stadium. It’ll be the most daunting road challenge he and his teammates will face all season.
“He’s been able to rise to the occasion and take each one of these new scenarios one step at a time,” Scott said. “I think that’s what this is all about. This is definitely going to be a very challenging place to play, extremely loud. They’ve got a reputation for being a very difficult place to play for opposing quarterbacks.”