As Deshaun Watson glided through the masses gathered for the “Tiger walk” before every Clemson home game, smiling and shaking hands with hordes of fans, a pair of curious eyes almost always followed his every move.
Kelly Bryant was taking mental notes, learning everything it took to be a starting quarterback for one of the nation’s top programs. In the video room, Bryant had split his attention between absorbing the nuances of game plans and watching how Watson dealt with all of it, but Bryant knew Clemson coach Dabo Swinney required more out of the role.
It was all part of Bryant’s preparation for a most unenviable task — following in the footsteps of a campus legend.
“The biggest thing I took from that was just how he handled himself,” said Bryant, who earned the starting job before the season for No. 2 Clemson, which travels to play Saturday night at No. 12 Virginia Tech (4-0). “Of course, everybody knew his name and knew who he was, but I watched how he engaged with people. That was something I took from him. Now, it’s my turn to step into that role.
“I don’t feel like anything has changed for me. I mean, now I’m the starting quarterback and people are coming up to me all the time, but I’ve just stayed the same. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for me. I didn’t want to change who I was.”
Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior, isn’t a Watson clone. He isn’t the born-passer Watson is, nor was Bryant the gem of the recruiting class like Watson was when he showed up at Clemson in 2014.
That’s not to say Bryant was an afterthought coming out of Wren High in Piedmont, S.C., just 24 miles east of Clemson. While Watson was considered by most recruiting analysts either the nation’s No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback in the ’14 class, Bryant was looked upon as a top-30 quarterback in the ’15 class.
In addition to a scholarship offer from Clemson (4-0), Bryant had offers from Virginia Tech, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina State, South Carolina, UNC, Mississippi, Duke, Georgia Tech and others. South Carolina offered him first. Clemson came along second.
So, with the heir apparent to Tajh Boyd, the Phoebus High alum who was also considered quarterback royalty at Clemson, already on the roster in the form of Watson, what compelled Bryant to turn down overtures from other strong programs and take the short drive to Clemson to spend his college years?
The truth is he never fretted much about the Watson factor.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Man, why would you go there? They already had Deshaun there'” said Bryant, who has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 873 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions to go along with 268 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in his first four starts. “I didn’t really even look at it that way.
Success on Saturdays doesn’t just happen…
You earn it.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 28, 2017
“I looked at where the best place was for me off the field, where could I get the best coaching and where could I grow as a person and as a man, not just as a football player.”
Bryant’s game was still developing when he got to Clemson, but the coaching staff already knew what kind of person they were getting. One of the relationships Bryant treasures the most began at Wren High in an unexpected way.
Transferring before his junior year to Wren, where he passed for more than 6,300 yards and 69 touchdowns and ran for more than 1,900 yards and 33 additional touchdowns in two seasons, Bryant said he struck up a conversation with Tanner Duniho and his mother, Paula, at the school’s introductory open house. Tanner Duniho, who was also about to start his junior year, has Down syndrome.
“I didn’t know anybody other than some of the guys I played football with during summer workouts,” Bryant said. “So, I was just trying to get to know people. …His mom saw me standing near him and said to him, ‘Hey, this is going to be your friend. He’s going to watch out for you.'”
A few weeks into his junior year, Bryant spotted Tanner Duniho eating lunch. Bryant sat down next to him at the table, had lunch and cultivated what has been a lasting friendship.
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“It’s just a sweet thing,” said Bryant, adding he reaches out every week or two to check in with Tanner Duniho. “He’s been more of a blessing to me than vice versa. We talk as much as we can. That’s just how I am. I love building relationships, talking with people, getting to know people and helping others as much as I can.”
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott was instantly impressed when he heard about Bryant’s connection with Tanner Duniho.
“He’s a confident young man, but he has a great ability to be confident but also humble at the same time,” Scott said. “He’s got a great attitude, loves to have fun. People are attracted to him, very similar to when Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson were here.”
Despite putting himself in position in his first two years at Clemson to take over for Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who left Clemson after a junior season that saw him lead the Tigers to the national championship, Bryant still had to earn the job.
“He was a little bit different than Deshaun in that he was more of an athlete than he was a true quarterback and passer,” Scott said. “Deshaun coming out high school was probably more of a passer than he was a runner of the football. Kelly really had to work on his passing game and throwing and accuracy and all those types of things. …for what we do in our passing game, we knew that Kelly would be a great fit for that, if he could handle everything else and win the job.”
Bryant came out of spring practices this year ahead of redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson, an early enrollee, on the depth chart, but Bryant didn’t take ownership of the starting job until preseason practices in August.
His mastery of an offense that was transitioning after the departures of Watson, who went on to get taken this year by the Houston Texans as the 12th overall selection in the NFL draft, running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott at the end of last season was apparent in the preseason.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 27, 2017
“He has been here for the past two years and he’s sat in the room for all the game plans,” Swinney said. “He’s been on the headsets. He understands game situations. He had a great model in Deshaun Watson to pay attention to every day as far as how he prepared, how he handled success, how he handled adversity, how he handled the media, all that type of stuff. So that part, I think has been helpful. …For us as a staff, we really haven’t changed much. We haven’t had to pare down the offense or anything like that. He really has a great understanding and command.”
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Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente finds Bryant’s willingness to keep grinding as he awaited an opportunity to play refreshing. Patience isn’t a common trait in college football.
“I don’t know the young man, but I think it’s neat that we’ve got a kid that waited his turn, was behind a fantastic player and practiced and, I’m assuming, everyday continued to develop his craft behind maybe the best quarterback in college football for a couple years there, and now has a chance to play and shine,” Fuente said. “In today’s instant gratification society, we don’t see that enough, in my opinion, so I think it speaks volumes about him, and now he’s getting his chance.”
Bryant has already passed two formidable tests. He threw for 181 yards, while adding 59 rushing yards and two touchdowns Sept. 9 in Clemson’s 14-6 win against Auburn, and completed 22-of-32 passes for 316 and a touchdown and scored two rushing touchdowns Sept. 16 in Clemson’s 47-21 win at Louisville.
“I’m not going to put this guy in the same category with Deshaun right now, who I thought really was the best college football player in the country last year,” Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I do believe (Bryant) has a lot of the same qualities, though, as far as good arm strength, he makes good throws down the field, he seems to make good decisions with the ball in his hands. He’s dynamic and explosive. So, those are the similarities.”
Still, Bryant hasn’t faced the kind of pressure he’ll see Saturday night in primetime in rabid Lane Stadium. It’ll be the most daunting road challenge he and his teammates will face all season.
“He’s been able to rise to the occasion and take each one of these new scenarios one step at a time,” Scott said. “I think that’s what this is all about. This is definitely going to be a very challenging place to play, extremely loud. They’ve got a reputation for being a very difficult place to play for opposing quarterbacks.”
This weekend’s game comes on the heels of what on the surface may not have seemed like a tough outing last Saturday in Clemson’s 34-7 home against Boston College, but closer analysis reveals just how much of a headache the afternoon was for Bryant.
These are the games where legends are born…
— HokiesFB (@HokiesFB) September 27, 2017
He completed 17-of-26 passes for 140 yards and two interceptions in a game that was tied 7-7 early in the fourth quarter, but he made up for his lackluster passing day with 106 rushing yards and two touchdowns, helping spur Clemson to four touchdowns in the final 12 minutes.
Bryant said the BC game taught him the importance of continuing to lead his teammates no matter the circumstances on the field — something he saw Watson do on multiple occasions.
“Just how knowledgeable he was about the game is still something I’m trying to work at, but I took the importance of that from him, and I also took from him how poised he was during the game,” Bryant said. “Whether it was a bad throw, or the offense wasn’t clicking, during the game he had that next-play mentality that we preach. That’s how he carried himself, and that’s how I want to carry myself, too.”
This article is written by Norm Wood from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.