The notion that Cole Stoudt might never start a meaningful game at Clemson couldn’t be faulted, given the context. Arriving tall and pencil thin, Stoudt did not have the arm or the swagger of the four- and five-star Elite 11, high school All-Americans who preceded and followed.
Though the numbers did not favor him, Stoudt beat the odds because he had a pedigree and patience. He milked them for every ounce of wisdom and savvy to arrive this week on the biggest stage of his life, as the starting quarterback opening the season in a game against Clemson’s nemesis before a snarling capacity crowd on a field surrounded by meticulously manicured privet.
His father, a quarterback of 13 pro seasons, began preparing Stoudt for this moment years earlier, nourishing his passion, schooling him on technique and, eventually, supporting his decision to leave Ohio when the Buckeyes were inattentive and indifferent.
Earnestly devoted to his children, Cliff Stoudt could be excused for wondering if his youngest was setting himself up for disappointment by staying at Clemson. Tajh Boyd, one of those trophy quarterbacks, had flirted with Ohio State two years earlier before choosing Clemson, and Stoudt would become his understudy for three seasons. When Chad Kelly, another with a genetic link to a former NFL quarterback, came the following year, Cole Stoudt was surrounded by entitled, type-A personalities.
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His father suggested he at least consider his options, Stoudt clipped the conversation with a rebuke. He was not interested. Born in Greenville the year after his father’s playing career ended, Stoudt always felt a kinship to Upstate South Carolina.
This was home.
Dutifully, he prepared as the backup for 40 games. Just in case. And predictably, all but one of his 22 appearances came against either lesser opponents or as the closer. He never took a snap in Clemson’s two biggest wins, against LSU and Ohio State in back-to-back bowl games.
With no hint of weariness as Boyd’s backup, he braced for the fight to succeed him. Kelly had thrown down the gauntlet well before he arrived, challenging Stoudt publicly. After an initial retort, he took the high road because they were to be teammates. They were never buddies.
After a competition for the starting job was announced, he remained stoic and the model of consistency. Perhaps understanding that even the perception of a rift could affect the team, he never betrayed his feelings.
When Kelly imploded after the spring game, Stoudt was remorseful. And when the job was officially his, Cliff Stoudt shed a tear of joy for his son.
Though he’s seen his father play only on tape, Stoudt frequently talks about the lessons. Other fathers served as their son’s mentor – why not listen to a guy who went from Youngstown State to the NFL and won a couple Super Bowl rings preparing dutifully. Just in case.
A number of questions swirl in the minds of Clemson fans as Stoudt prepares this week for his season as the starting quarterback, most regarding his skill and arm strength and durability. While his passes might not have Boyd’s velocity, and he’s not going to be the designated runner on third-and-short, there’s a belief Stoudt answered many of the big questions just by being here.
His passing numbers in those 22 games are impressive – 86 of 119 for 742 yards, eight touchdowns and a single interception – and his weight this summer was up to 230. Being a big-picture guy, and a product of the big picture, he embraces the plan to occasionally make room for freshman phenom Deshaun Watson.
After three record-setting seasons under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, there’s an attitude that it’s unreasonable to think Clemson can be as productive without Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Morris wants his “no-name offense” to take it personally, to play with an attitude.
Watkins might be gone, but Stoudt likes the tools available to him. There’s more depth at running back and receiver and tight end than Boyd ever imagined.
“When I try to do too much, that’s when I’ve made mistakes,” Stoudt said. “I’m going to keep doing what I do, and that’s being relaxed and going out there to have fun with the guys.
“That’s what I did to win this job.”
Dabo Swinney said he would be surprised if Stoudt does not handle the pressure of the moment well.
“I don’t expect him to be perfect or anything like that, but as far as being overwhelmed with the moment, that would shock me,” Swinney said. “He’s a level-headed guy.
“He’s got the mentality, as far as being able to move on from the successes and moving on from a little bit of failure. You’re going to have that, too, when you play that position.”
Stoudt said people frequently tell him, “One reason why you have succeeded is because of your patience.”
It should serve him well on a hot night in Sanford Stadium with a hostile crowd and Clemson’s season on his shoulders.
Cole Stoudt has prepared for this moment for a long time. Just in case.