CLEMSON — Chad Morris disguises the satisfaction when speaking of Deshaun Watson, so it conjures questions about Clemson’s immediate future at quarterback.
When Dabo Swinney turns the page after the Orange Bowl and looks at the holes in the Clemson depth chart, that’s where it will be most gaping. The competition could be war until kickoff next fall. There’s not a clear-cut replacement for Tajh Boyd.
Watson intends to enroll in January and could push the returnees.
“I think anybody that comes in, in January, not necessarily just Deshaun, anybody that comes in, in January, is ahead of the game, because you get to focus on yourself, learning the offense,” Morris said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead. It will be a great quarterback race this spring, very competitive.”
Based on experience and seniority, Cole Stoudt might be the heir apparent. Stoudt soldiered through three seasons as Boyd’s backup without complaint. In modest playing time, he has been cool and efficient. His father (Cliff Stoudt) was a pro quarterback, so he understands the game.
If not Stoudt, then perhaps it’s Chad Kelly. After enrolling in January, he impressed the staff during spring practice, but a torn knee ligament in the final scrimmage cost him a shot at beating Stoudt for the backup role. Overcoming long odds, he returned to practice as the season began and made five cameo appearances. A more assertive runner than Stoudt, Kelly’s bravado should elevate the intensity of the competition.
Then there’s Watson, by acclimation the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospect. ESPN.com likened his skill, savvy and presence to Jameis Winston.
There’s a feeling Morris wants to know quickly if Watson is the real deal.
“Obviously, I think the record speaks for itself,” he said. “I think what he’s done in Georgia — the records that he’s broken have been pretty remarkable, in just three years, essentially.”
While preparing for the bowl game is the priority, it’s not too soon to speculate on how the competition might play out. Stoudt downplayed it after Wednesday’s practice.
“Patience is something I had to learn, because in high school I started for three years,” he said. Stoudt has completed 72 percent of 119 passes for eight touchdowns and thrown one interception in 22 appearances. He completed 19 of 20 against S.C. State and 11 of 12 against Wake Forest.
“What I learned when I came here is you can’t have what you want right away. You have to learn so much because the game is so much faster,” he said.
“I’m just waiting for my time. When I’m ready, I’ll play.”
Kelly, nephew of Pro Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, wants to make it tough on the guy ahead of him and the guy behind him. He believes Watson was sold on the promise of an opportunity, just as he was promised when Clemson recruited him from Buffalo, N.Y.
Coming back from the knee injury was minor compared to the agony of sitting and watching. In five appearances, he completed 10 of 17 passes for 58 yards, and rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
“The hardest part definitely was sitting behind someone,” he said, “waiting until your name is called.”
Kelly said he watched with a measure of envy as Johnny Manziel and Winston hit the headlines in their first seasons, so it’s amplified his eagerness to compete for the starting job.
“On the field, there’s a little tension because you’re trying to compete, but off the field you’re still friends,” he said. “I love it here, so that’s all that matters.”