CLEMSON, S.C. -- The last time Dabo Swinney had a quarterback competition during spring practice and let his QBs go live -- meaning they could be hit by defenders -- his prized recruit, Deshaun Watson, got hurt and effectively handed the job to veteran Cole Stoudt.
Three years later, Swinney rolled the dice again, putting a target on his quarterbacks during Clemson's Wednesday scrimmage, but things went a bit smoother this time around.
Kelly Bryant, the nominal No. 1 on the depth chart, was efficient, co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. Zerrick Cooper, the talented redshirt freshman, looked overwhelmed early but settled into a groove. And this season's prized prospect, Hunter Johnson, not only emerged unscathed, but he might have taken another step toward grabbing the starting job.
"He had the best day, for sure," Swinney said. "He played with good poise."
Johnson, ESPN's top-ranked pocket QB and a January enrollee at Clemson, looked sharp running the ball, showed good pocket awareness and was able to extend some plays with his legs, Elliott said. It was a clear sign the young QB had made some strides through 10 spring practices.
"This is the first time we had an opportunity to put him in some designed quarterback runs like we had with Deshaun and Tajh [Boyd] in the past, and he looked really comfortable," Elliott said. "I knew he was an athletic kid, and he made some guys miss and broke some tackles."
Swinney underscored the notion that Bryant had done nothing to compromise his status as Clemson's No. 1 QB, but Johnson's continued progress early in his career has turned heads, with his ability to showcase his skill set against an attacking defense another big check mark off the list of things the coaching staff hoped to see.
"It's critical," Swinney said of putting his QBs in harm's way. "I don't know how much I'll do it in August, but it was good to see today. Saw some toughness out of all those guys."
Bryant was 8-for-14 for 94 yards and had a rushing touchdown. Cooper was 4-for-10 for 28 yards and a touchdown, while Johnson was 5-for-11 for 110 yards and a score. He completed a 31-yard scoring pass to Trevion Thompson and also hit on a 48-yard pass to Diondre Overton that set up a score.
At this point in 2014, Watson had turned heads, too, but a collarbone injury kept him out of the final week of spring practice and set him well behind Stoudt in his push to win the starting job. It would take four games before Watson finally took over as the team's starter.
In Johnson, Elliott said he has already seen so many of the same qualities he liked in Watson's early work.
"You just want to see a guy's not overwhelmed, and if he makes a mistake, he knows what mistake he made," Elliott said. "You're seeing him start to get it, start to understand where he's going with the ball."
That's the biggest similarity with Watson, Elliott said.
"Hunter comes into a situation where it's an open job, and we're putting him in more stressful situations than we put Deshaun in early on," Elliott said. "Deshaun had a high confidence level, and you're seeing a lot of that with Hunter."
The competition for the starting job isn't likely to be resolved when Clemson wraps up spring ball April 8, but Swinney said finding a starter is hardly his top concern. He has seen enough from each of his QBs to feel good about the options he's working with.
"A lot of people say if you don't have a quarterback named the starter, you don't have one, but that's bologna," Swinney said. "We've got some good ones. ... It's very competitive, and it's going to continue to be competitive. And eventually, it'll happen."