CLEMSON — When the apple is ripe, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, you pick it.
The Tigers on Monday hope they picked wisely, announcing that redshirt freshman Kyle Parker has beaten out redshirt sophomore Willy Korn to be the starting quarterback for the Sept. 5 opener against Middle Tennessee.
“If it was real, real, real close, we wouldn’t be doing this right now,” Swinney said. “But there is some separation, so we felt it was the right time to go ahead and start getting Kyle the first-team reps, and let’s get Willy the second-team reps and let’s get ready to play.”
Neither the selection nor its timing come as a surprise. Coaches had hinted at an announcement for the past week. They wanted to name a starter so he could begin establishing continuity and rhythm with the offense.
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Parker has been the front-runner since the end of spring practice, and offensive coordinator Billy Napier said Parker reinforced his position through the first two weeks of August camp by displaying “a little bit more — from arm strength to explosive potential.”
The news figured to center on the reaction of Korn, a local prep star saddled with high expectations since his arrival three years ago.
Korn, though, said his concerns were alleviated Sunday night after each quarterback met separately with Swinney.
Swinney reiterated a pledge Korn and Napier had broached before: Korn said he “was guaranteed to play in every single game. And that’s really the only thing I was looking for — just making sure I was going to get an opportunity to play and still prove myself.”
After he got off to a slow start in Clemson’s first two practices this month, Korn said he had a gut feeling Parker would be starter. But he does not believe he is so far behind that he couldn’t surpass Parker based on game production.
“I feel like I’m good enough to start for the team, I’ll tell you that,” Korn said. “But that was (coaches’) decision to make.
“I really feel like I’m throwing the ball the best I ever have. I really, truly believe that. It’s by far the best camp I’ve had, throwing the ball with zip, accuracy, getting the ball downfield, making good decisions. I feel really comfortable with where I’m at. I just have to keep the same attitude every day.”
While Napier said Parker is not locked in as starter for the entire season, he wanted to make it clear that Parker earned the job. Swinney added that he solicited “lots of eyes” on the battle for input.
“You know, it’s not a situation where Kyle is looking over his shoulder,” Swinney said. “He’s the starter. And it’s very clear at this point he’s the starter. But at the same time, I think Willy brings some unique intangibles to the quarterback situation, and the bottom line is he deserves the opportunity to play. I think that was the biggest thing with Willy, that he knows mentally he will have the chance to compete.
“This is a situation where we’re making a decision, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a final decision forever. You have to go compete and be productive, that’s the bottom line. But we have to start honing in now on who we’re coaching, who we’re investing our time into coaching, and getting ready to play. I do think it will help us from a continuity standpoint.”
Clemson plans to hold another scrimmage today, and both quarterbacks should receive a similar amount of work, Napier said. The biggest impact the decision has on practice reps, Napier said, is that the third-team quarterback (junior Michael Wade) is largely squeezed out of the picture.
Parker, who expressed the hope last week that the quarterback situation would be decided sooner rather than later, said the decision brought some relief.
“I feel a little bit less pressure and can focus now toward the games and not have to worry about winning in practice every day,” Parker said. “I’m excited and looking forward to the next step.
“But coming out today, it was going back to work. I don’t think I’ve really accomplished anything yet. It’s great, and I’m blessed to have this opportunity, but I still have to perform on the field.”