ACC's established QBs will get pushed this spring

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Trevor Lawrence was among the last players to exit the field after his first official practice at Clemson. Wearing a tank top and carrying his helmet, he sauntered past teammates in the weight room, flexing his bicep in a teasing gesture to star defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell and flashing a grin as a handful of media members snapped photos.

Before the practice, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney had raved about his quarterback depth chart, hyping Lawrence, the nation's top recruit according to several sites, as a more physically developed prodigy than even Deshaun Watson. A few former players who had watched practice eagerly touted the talent now in the QB room, and players who'd been on the field with Lawrence and his cohorts were happy to sing early praises.

In a corner, backed against some weight-lifting equipment, Kelly Bryant watched Lawrence's procession past reporters. A few had been interrogating Bryant, but pretty much everyone in the room stopped to take notice as Lawrence made his way past. This is reality for the guy atop the depth chart, the incumbent QB for a team that went to the College Football Playoff just a few months ago.

Bryant turned in a stellar 2017 season, leading the Tigers to a 13-0 record in games in which he started and finished before getting thumped by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. No sooner had he emerged from the long shadow of his predecessor, Watson, than the glare of the spotlight shifted to his new challenger, Lawrence.

"It's my job, man. I don't feel like I did anything so far to raise any questions," Bryant said. "It's mine to lose, of course, so I just have that mind-set not to be complacent."

Clemson has a wealth of riches at QB, which is, in theory, a good thing. But the problems are clear, too. Bryant was good last year, but is he better than Lawrence? And what about Hunter Johnson, a guy who actually got some playing time last year after joining Clemson as the top QB recruit of the 2017 class.

It's no secret that Swinney, who chose senior Cole Stoudt over Watson as the starter in 2014, values veteran leadership. But in the wake of last year's national title game, when Nick Saban pulled his two-year starter for a true freshman and won a national championship because of it, the Tigers are forced to ask themselves: Even if Bryant is good, is he good enough to win it all?

And the really interesting twist to all this is that in the ACC, it's not just Clemson asking this question.

There are five ACC quarterbacks who return for 2018 with at least 300 pass attempts and a career winning record under their belts, and yet, aside from NC State's Ryan Finley, none is assured the starting job when the season begins.

"I'm like everyone else, ready to see who separates," Florida State coach Willie Taggart said about his QB situation.

Taggart took over a 6-6 FSU team that struggled offensively without injured QB Deondre Francois, who won't practice beyond some light throwing this spring as he recovers from a torn ACL. But over the final few games, freshman James Blackman made real strides, and with a new offensive scheme, some backroom sniping over Francois' lack of involvement while sidelined and an offseason to develop the younger QB, Taggart said there are no guarantees on who will start.

Down the road at Miami, Mark Richt has been a bit more vocal about his support for starter Malik Rosier, but that doesn't mean fans are lining up behind him. Sure, Rosier led the Hurricanes to their first ACC Coastal title in program history. The flip side, however, is that Rosier was horrendous down the stretch. Over Miami's final three games, all losses, Rosier completed just 45 percent of his throws with six turnovers.

"Malik is the starting quarterback, for sure," Richt said last month. "Someone's got to dethrone him. Someone's got to beat him out if that's going to happen."

A significant portion of the Miami fan base is hoping that's exactly what happens, however. Even before last season, there was ample buzz for freshman N'Kosi Perry, who ended up redshirting the season. Now, Perry has a year with his nose in the playbook to back his obvious physical skills, and with Rosier's slow finish to the season, there's no reason to assume Richt's view on the depth chart can't change by the end of spring practice, let alone the season opener.

It's a similar story at Virginia Tech, where Josh Jackson's torrid start to the season was undermined by a brutal finish.

Through the end of October, Jackson was among the most efficient QBs in the country, throwing 17 touchdowns to just four picks and completing better than 62 percent of his passes. The final month of the season, along with the bowl game, were a far different story, with Jackson completing only about 55 percent of his throws, with just three touchdowns and five interceptions. His passer efficiency dropped from 154 to 106.

Jackson remains the leading choice to start again this year, but with veteran AJ Bush and redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker in the mix, nothing is set in stone. Justin Fuente said all will get opportunities this spring, with Bush and Hooker likely to go live during some scrimmages. The key, however, is Jackson's progress.

"I want to see him make the consistent or the average play on a more consistent basis," Fuente said. "He made several plays for us during the fall, but we also left a lot of plays out there as a group. Not just Josh. I want to see us make those plays consistently."

Of course, what's missing from the QB battles at Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami is an obvious Plan B. While Francois, Rosier and Jackson may have flaws, they've proven -- at least so far -- to be the best option available. At Clemson, that's not entirely certain.

For now, of course, Swinney isn't giving away much insight. Bryant has the team's ear, and that's important. Lawrence has been on campus just a few weeks, and even for the best of prospects, there's a learning curve. But all of that just means there isn't likely to be a certain answer for months, and the pressure on coaches like Swinney has been ratcheted up by Saban's bold decision in the national title game.

"I've got guys in that room that are coming for this spot, so I have to work," Bryant said. "And it's a good thing having guys in that room that want to compete. I know that feeling. That's the mindset I had last year, all year long."