Ideally, this week Cole Stoudt can reboot and becomes the quarterback that Clemson coaches rolled out this season as their starter.
Somewhere between then and now, between games at Athens, Ga., and Atlanta, his confidence seemed to deflate, leaving offensive coordinator Chad Morris without an instant answer for Saturday’s game against Georgia State, let alone next week’s against South Carolina.
Stoudt’s performance after Deshaun Watson injured a knee in the first quarter Saturday at Georgia Tech created a dilemma for Morris and coach Dabo Swinney.
Morris planned to proceed this week without Watson. Originally fearing he had torn an anterior collateral ligament, which typically requires surgery and extended rehabilitation, Clemson said Sunday night Watson sustained a sprained lateral collateral ligament and bone bruise. Coaches were optimistic he could return, perhaps in time for the South Carolina game, but an additional examination was expected this week.
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One solution for the short term might be former walk-on Nick Schuessler, a third-year sophomore from Grayson, Ga., who hadn’t taken a significant snap until the third quarter last Saturday.
However, Morris and Swinney aren’t prepared to cast aside a loyal player who spent three years as the backup to record-setter Tajh Boyd and six months ago emerged as the winner of a three-way competition. Morris sounded flummoxed by Stoudt’s performance against Tech, which included two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
“I know it’s been an up and down process for him, but we all know what Cole is capable of doing,” Morris said Monday. “We’ve seen him play at a high level.”
After nine snaps in three games as a redshirt freshman, Schuessler received his most extensive playing time when Stoudt left after a third interception. Schuessler completed 4 of 4 passes for 19 yards, the longest for 8, and was sacked twice by a furious pass rush.
Morris said Schuessler is an option, and he deflected suggestion of moving another player to the wildcat package prepared for running back Adam Choice before his injury at Boston College.
Morris and Swinney really want Stoudt to succeed.
“My heart really hurts for him,” Swinney said. “Cole brings everything we need to the offense to win.”
While rebuilding his confidence falls primarily on the coaches, Morris also called out his teammates and Stoudt himself to step up and accept the challenge.
“We’ve got to get Cole back to the level he was playing at early in the year against Georgia and the confidence level he was playing at,” he said. “The turnovers are unacceptable. We’ve actually been kind of flirting with this situation over the last few weeks (and) we have been fortunate not to beat ourselves. It cost us this past week.”
They don’t want to pile on Stoudt. A shoulder injury minimized his practice the week before he replaced Watson in the Louisville game, and it continued to nag. He received an injection for pain at Georgia Tech. And Morris tried to ease some of the burden by taking away the things that challenge him and by simplifying the offense.
“You try to do what you feel you can execute, and right now we’re not executing the base, just the base simple stuff,” Morris said. “We’ve dialed way back and tried to simplify things.
“It can’t just be all on him. Everybody’s got to pick their slack up,” Morris said. “And each position has got to play a little bit better than what they’ve been playing.”
“Basically, you’ve got 12 days left in this season and there’s a lot to be accomplished in these next 12 days, a whole lot that could definitely change the way we feel right now.”