CLEMSON — In a bandana and the scruffy beginnings of a beard, Cole Stoudt resembled a swashbuckler, more Errol Flynn than Johnny Depp, and as near flamboyant as he likely ventures.
By virtue of age and experience, Stoudt began spring practice Wednesday as QB1 in the Clemson quarterback trinity, an opportunity years in planning and preparation with an assist from his father, former NFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt.
“I’ve been kind of calm about it,” said Stoudt, tall and looking self-confident after the first workout. “I’ll be ready for anything that happens.”
When the season opens at Georgia in August, the Clemson quarterback will be either Stoudt or Chad Kelly or Deshaun Watson. If there’s a favorite, Clemson’s coaches aren’t tipping their hands.
“It’s going to be fun to watch it happen before our eyes,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s going to be very competitive.”
It’s fair to characterize Kelly’s status as QB1A. Last spring, when they went head-to-head for the right to back up all-conference starter Tajh Boyd, the race was in a dead heat when Kelly tore a knee ligament during the spring game. Stoudt held the job for a third season, with Kelly champing at the bit.
“It’s only like 10 months,” Kelly said, reflecting on the injury. “It feels like a whole lot of time, but I’ve been waiting on my moment too long.”
Beginning the process has invigorated offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who couldn’t recall the last time he had a competition at quarterback of any magnitude. Everything will be on the table for scrutiny, including some Fantasy Island adversity.
“Our approach is to be the same guy every day,” he said. “A lot of mind games are going to be played, see how you respond.
“In the end, it’s the one that gets their team in the end zone.”
Watson could be a wildcard. The most prolific passer in Georgia high school history, he played in a scheme similar to Clemson’s for four seasons. Tall, lean and quick, he’s the ideal weapon in Morris’ offense, which was why he began recruiting Watson shortly after stepping off the plane from Oklahoma.
“A lot of time has been invested,” Morris said. “To see him out here today has been pretty special.”
Swinney anticipated a prolonged process.
“I just don’t know if you can settle it in spring ball,” he said. “We’ll just have to see.
“We’ll let these guys compete and, at some point, we have to make a decision,” he said, adding that once a choice is made, “it’s not a lifetime contract.”
“The decision that will be made will not be based on what’s best for the future,” he said. “It’s going to be based on what’s best for us winning in 2014.
Stoudt believes he’s competing against three people – not two.
“You always have to improve on something every day. The next practice, you compete against yourself to be better than you were,” he said. “I’m constantly competing with myself while competing against everyone else and pushing others to get better themselves.”
Part of the job is stopping to counsel Kelly or offer advice to Watson.
“You have to step up a little bit and kind of mature a little bit,” he said. “My dad always tells me, ‘Be yourself and lead by example. People will follow.’ ”
Kelly said he was riding the momentum of practice in December, “some of the best I had at Clemson.”
Responding to critics who wonder about his accuracy Kelly shrugged.
“People always say my accuracy might not be good, but I didn’t get here with bad throwing ability,” he said. “To be honest, I feel like I have the strongest arm and best accuracy.”
Swinney said the goal would be to identify the player who “gives us the best chance to win on Saturdays right now.”
“Maybe one guy separates, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll let it keep going.
“It’s a strong competition. It’s going to be a fun competition,” Stoudt said. “Somebody’s going to be disappointed.”