Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did the right thing. And it almost cost him and his team a shot at the national championship.
Four games into the season, Swinney decided it was time to make a change at quarterback. He had senior Kelly Bryant, who had won 17 of his 19 starts and led the Tigers to the national semifinals last season. But the Tigers were exposed in their national semifinal loss to Alabama.
The message was clear. Bryant is plenty good enough to win a lot of games for Clemson, but he’s probably not good enough to excel against the elite teams.
Trevor Lawrence has the raw ability to compete against those elite teams. He’s only a true freshman, so it remains to be seen if he can actually live up to that task. But at least with Lawrence there’s a chance.
So, four games into this season, Swinney took the extraordinary step of calling Bryant into his office and telling him Lawrence was going to be the starting quarterback. That was Sunday before the Syracuse game. Swinney gave Bryant the day off on Monday to digest the disappointing news. On Tuesday, Bryant again didn’t show up for practice.
Bryant texted Swinney to let him know he no longer wished to be part of the team.
The news of him leaving broke in the Greenville News, with him telling the newspaper:
“I feel like it’s what’s best for me and my future. I was just going to control what I could control and try to make the most of my opportunity, but at the end of the day, I just don’t feel like I’ve gotten a fair shot. I’ve never been a distraction. I’ve never been in trouble with anything. To me, it was kind of a slap in the face.”
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but it’s hard to not pass judgment on Bryant for not delivering that message in person.
With Swinney breaking the news to Bryant before the fifth game of the season, he knew he was allowing Bryant the opportunity to use 2018 as a redshirt year before transferring to another school and playing next season. As a recent Clemson graduate, he won’t have to sit out a year.
Swinney knew all of this before he told Bryant of his decision. It would have been so much easier to tell him one week later, after Bryant had burned his opportunity to redshirt and play elsewhere. But that’s not how Swinney operates. He didn’t want Bryant to leave, but he wanted to make sure that decision was up to the player.
Swinney chose the ethical route, and he was almost rewarded with an embarrassing loss.
Clemson moved forward with the most talented true freshman quarterback in the country. What could go wrong?
What could go wrong did go wrong, as Lawrence suffered an injury Saturday against Syracuse. The Tigers trailed 23-20 when they finally scored the winning touchdown with 41 seconds remaining. Redshirt freshman Chase Brice was forced to lead the comeback after starting the week as the third-string quarterback.
Clemson is good enough to win at Wake Forest this week and against a very weak schedule the rest of the way. Lawrence will no doubt be back before the championship run begins, which is all that really matters.
But the whole episode brings into focus an issue that was never anticipated. The unintended consequences of the new rule that allows players to redshirt after playing in four games is that more and more upperclassmen are using the rule as a path to free agency.
I was among those who thought Alabama’s Jalen Hurts would take that path. I was wrong to underestimate what a good young man and good teammate he is. Just because his dad made some unfortunate comments about his son becoming the “biggest free agent in college football history,” there was no reason to believe Hurts was anything less than what he’s always been since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Hurts could still transfer after the season and be able to play for at another school next season. But that discussion can wait until after Alabama’s attempted championship run.
For now, the key point to take away is that Hurts decided to remain true to his teammates when he lost his job to a more talented and younger player.
Bryant chose a different path.
No matter what happens next season, Hurts will leave Tuscaloosa as a celebrated Crimson Tide legend. Bryant leaves Clemson spewing bitter comments on his way out.
Two guys who had previously shown nothing but class on and off the field handled their situations differently. As a result, Alabama has the best backup quarterback in the country, while Clemson is left to hope Lawrence gets back on the field quickly and can remain healthy and productive for a team that has all the other pieces to be a national championship contender.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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