CLEMSON — Clemson’s focus at the start of fall camp is again on its quarterbacks, though for a different reason than the previous two seasons.
Then it was seeing how far record-breaking passer Tajh Boyd could lead the Tigers. Now, it’s about who will follow Boyd behind center and to see if he can keep Clemson’s high-energy offense on the move.
The Tigers hit the field Friday for the start of fall camp as the Thin Lizzy tune “The Boys Are Back In Town” blared in the team’s practice facility. Not all the guys are back, though, leaving questions among Clemson fans whether the potent offense will take a few steps back.
Senior Cole Stoudt won the job in the spring after spending the past three seasons as Boyd’s backup. He will be pressured by freshman Deshaun Watson, one of the country’s top prep prospects who accounted for Georgia state marks with 17,134 yards and 218 touchdowns.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney says Stoudt has done well in the offense and earned the chance to start the opener at Georgia on Aug. 30. But Stoudt must keep progressing this fall or risk getting jumped.
“What if he goes out there and stinks it up the next two weeks?” Swinney said before practice. “We’re not going to reward a guy for that.”
Swinney is confident, though, that won’t happen.
Stoudt was tutored early on by his father, former NFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt, and has shown a tall, strong presence in the pocket when given the chance. That wasn’t often the past three years behind the durable Boyd, who finished his career as Clemson’s career leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns among dozens of records.
One longevity mark Boyd doesn’t hold belongs to Stoudt – interception avoidance. Stoudt has thrown just one interception in 119 career attempts.
Stoudt has also shown the ability to hang in there in difficult situations, most notably when he led the Tigers to a late touchdown in a 51-14 loss to Florida State when the Seminoles’ backups were running free and easy trying to prevent another score.
The starting job wasn’t handed to Stoudt as the next in line, Swinney said.
“He has a sense of urgency to be the guy,” the coach said.
That was apparent in workouts when Stoudt couldn’t match the rocket arm of Watson on a cock-the-shoulder-and-fire drill. When offensive coordinator Chad Morris called out Stoudt as the winner on the third go-round, the senior let out a loud, “Yeah!”
Moments later, Stoudt was calling a false start on the freshman.
“Deshaun, I watched that,” Stoudt said.
There are plenty of eyes watching Watson’s progress this summer and fall. Swinney has said the young quarterback will see action against Georgia, although he hasn’t detailed how much or how early.
The 6-foot-3 Watson has added about 20 pounds since arriving on campus in January. Swinney has said Watson’s got a wow factor that he saw in Sammy Watkins, the stellar Clemson receiver picked No. 4 overall in the NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills.
Stoudt says he and Watson work together to make the Tigers better, the way he and Boyd did the previous three seasons.
Swinney was pleased how both quarterbacks worked to improve their fitness and take ownership of Clemson’s latest group as the Tigers try and reach double-digit victories for a fourth straight season after going 10-4, 11-2 and 11-2.
Clemson last accomplished that feat of four in row from 1987 through 1990.
Swinney couldn’t help peeking beyond this season, announcing that the team had signed 13 high-schoolers to financial aid agreements Friday. Those players are more than the 12 Swinney signed in his first class at Clemson in February 2009, which he called his “Dandy Dozen” and included Boyd.
“There’s been a lot of work that’s been done before you,” Swinney told his players, “and it’s your turn to carry the torch.”