CLEMSON — If Saturday’s spring showcase was the sole audition in the Clemson quarterback competition, Cole Stoudt finished with a distinct advantage over Chad Kelly.
Stoudt and Kelly went head-to-head. Statistically it wasn’t close. When Kelly was benched during the second half after challenging a coach’s decision near the end of the second quarter, it was game over for the sophomore from Buffalo, N.Y.
Throughout spring, coach Dabo Swinney has been unwilling to name a frontrunner or a pecking order because there wasn’t any urgency. With Deshaun Watson sidelined by a cracked collarbone, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Stoudt’s name atop the preseason depth chart heading to Athens, Ga., on Aug. 30.
“No question, today Cole Stoudt had the better day, was the better leader, was more poised and handled the situation that was in front of him better,” Swinney said.
“Chad Kelly is an awful talented young man. (He) made a couple of impulse decisions today that were really out of character for him,” he said. “He got frustrated today and reacted the way your leader can’t react. It’s that simple.”
On the field, it boiled down to Stoudt throwing two touchdown passes. Kelly threw a pair of interceptions, all in the first half, the second when he seemed to be pressing to make a big play.
“I’m happy with how I played,” Stoudt said. “I had a good spring, and I’m kind of excited about how this fall is going to turn out.”
Stoudt completed 15 of 23 passes for 158 yards. He and receiver Mike Williams spotted a safety blitz in the first quarter, and Stoudt lofted a pass that went for a 28-yard touchdown for the White squad. In the second quarter, he steered a six-play, 89-yard drive that finished when he hit tight end Jordan Leggett for a 16-yard touchdown on a corner route they’ve practiced “a million times.”
“Throughout the spring, I’ve improved myself as a player, as a teammate and a leader,” said Stoudt, who backed up Tajh Boyd for a couple seasons. “I’m happy with my situation.”
Stoudt was unaware of what transpired between Kelly, assistant coach Jeff Scott and offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Kelly seemed animated and frustrated. After finishing 10 of 18 for 113 yards and interceptions on consecutive possessions, he ran to the locker room and did not meet with the media.
“He’s still a young player. A big part of this position is maturity and leadership, and those are two things we’ve got to count on,” Swinney said. “Just didn’t like how he responded to coach Morris and coach Scott.”
Because Swinney and Morris said “everything counts,” this would seem to be a major setback for Kelly, who despite his bountiful athletic gifts, tends to be a bit high strung.
While Watson should return with a clean slate despite missing the final two practices and the spring game, Kelly might need to dig out of a hole when the competition resumes in August. Morris said he wants a quarterback immune to extreme highs and lows, which would seem to favor Stoudt.
“Absolutely, he had the better day,” Swinney said. “It’s been one of those things where it’s been up and down every day. If we kept practicing, tomorrow might be a different story.
“It’s a lot more than just the skills,” he said. “Not going to have guys crossing the line with the coaches and things like that just because they’re frustrated with whatever.”
The final words are reserved for sophomore Leggett, whose maturity has turned the corner, allowing him to live up to his prodigious talent.
Leggett said he doesn’t want to play favorites, but he and Stoudt have worked together extensively.
“Me and Cole have been through a lot together,” he said. “Being in the footsteps of Tajh Boyd, he has caught on to everything. When he gets out there to lead the offense, he knows exactly what to do and where to put people. It’s helpful to have a quarterback like that, that has experience.”