Matt Connolly

What Hunter Johnson's departure means for Clemson moving forward

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on quarterbacks, exit interviews

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney discussed the quarterback situation and exit interviews.
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Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney discussed the quarterback situation and exit interviews.

As of mid-January, Clemson was set to have five quarterbacks on scholarship for the 2018 season. After Monday, the Tigers are down to three.

Former five-star recruit Hunter Johnson announced his intentions to transfer from Clemson on Monday, four months after redshirt sophomore quarterback Zerrick Cooper revealed that he was leaving the program.

Johnson will have to sit out the 2018 season and will have three years of eligibility remaining, beginning in 2019, should he land at an FBS school as expected. Multiple reports, including one from 247Sports, said that Johnson could be headed to Purdue or Northwestern.

“I want to thank coach (Dabo) Swinney and the Clemson family for giving me the opportunity to be a part of something special,” Johnson said in a statement. “I’ve met some amazing people who I will forever call family. I am a better man and a better football player because of my time spent at Clemson. Go Tigers!”

Johnson was rated as the No. 2 quarterback in the country for the class of 2017 when he signed with the Tigers out of Brownsburg High in Brownsburg, Ind.

He completed 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards with two touchdowns and one interception as a true freshman in 2017. He was in a battle with Kelly Bryant, Trevor Lawrence and Chase Brice for the starting job.

Johnson had an impressive spring at Clemson, culminating with a strong performance in the spring game. He helped the Orange to a 28-17 win against the White last month, completing 8 of 14 passes for 85 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

But he was overshadowed by true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw for 122 yards and a touchdown in the game.

The No. 1 recruit in the class of 2018, Lawrence showed off impressive arm strength and command of the offense after arriving on campus in January.

“Trevor getting his first experience, it’s hard to start any better than that,” Swinney said after the spring game. “He’s a very poised young player. He’s been exposed to a lot. He’s a kid that’s been starting since the ninth grade ... He’s not been overwhelmed at all from a confidence standpoint. His demeanor has not changed all spring whether he’s with the threes or ones. He’s off to a really good start.”

It appeared exiting the spring that Kelly Bryant and Lawrence were the frontrunners to earn the starting quarterback job. With Johnson transferring out, that is certainly the case now.

“Anytime you have that situation, especially at the quarterback position, it is only natural,” Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott told the Rich Taylor Show in Columbia on Monday. “Quarterback is a position that gets a lot of play and a lot of pub because it is one of the top positions in all of football. But it is no different than a lot of our positions, receivers, defensive backs and defensive linemen that are in the same situation. It speaks to the amount of talent we were able to bring in and attract.”

Clemson was set to have an embarrassment of riches at quarterback for the 2018 season, and the Tigers still have two solid options in Lawrence and Bryant. With Johnson and Cooper moving on, Clemson will be without its two backup quarterbacks from last season, as well as the only two QBs (other than Bryant) to have played in a college game.

The Tigers will be thin at quarterback in 2019 with Lawrence, Brice and class of 2019 commit Taisun Phommachanh set to be the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.

Brice has yet to throw a pass in his college career and will likely be No. 3 on the depth chart this season.

Phommachanh is rated as a four-star prospect and the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the country. The Tigers could sign another quarterback for the class of 2019 to give them four on the roster for 2019.

Clemson continues to go after some of the top quarterbacks in the country; and while the Tigers have been able to land more than their share of top QB prospects, it is not a surprise that some are moving on.

Quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter was asked on signing day how Clemson continues to bring in top quarterback prospects and said there are a variety of reasons.

“The culture is probably the most important thing for these guys ... The competition thing is going to be everywhere you go. Obviously we have some really good quarterbacks here, but there’s a lot of good quarterbacks at all the places. You can look at Georgia, you’re going to look at Auburn, there’s really good quarterbacks everywhere you go,” Streeter said. “What I do is I encourage these guys that we’re recruiting to don’t focus on that as much. Yeah, you’ve got to look at the depth chart, there’s no doubt about it. But focus on the more important things like who you’re going to be around. What type of culture you’re going to be around. These guys believe in that culture.”

Johnson joins defensive linemen Josh Belk, Sterling Johnson and Jabril Robinson, running back C.J. Fuller, tight end Shadell Bell and quarterbacks Tucker Israel and Cooper as players to transfer from Clemson since the end of the 2017 season.

Swinney has built an impressive culture at Clemson. As the Tigers continue to bring in top talent, there also will be top talent that transfers out.

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