CLEMSON — Kelly Bryant went down, Clemson needed a new quarterback plan and it was generally assumed the Tigers would strategize against Syracuse on Friday night the same way they have often times this year: rotate Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson for the backup reps.
Cooper, the redshirt freshman, is listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, while true freshman Johnson is a close No. 3, but Clemson coaches have tried to manage their reps somewhat equally through the year. It was the case against Wake Forest when Bryant originally rolled his ankle Oct. 7 and what many believed would be the case again in Clemson’s eventual 27-24 loss to the Orange at the Carrier Dome on Friday night. Some even thought Johnson might take over solo.
The Tigers rolled out Cooper first — as expected — but then never called on Johnson, the nation’s top high school quarterback from a season ago, to contribute.
Immediately after Clemson’s stunning loss, Dabo Swinney and his fellow coaches were pressed on that decision. So they offered a bit of insight.
“I think (Zerrick) has just been more consistent,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We’ve had all spring and fall camp and Hunter has done a really good job, as well. He’s closing the gap, (but) just from everything we’ve seen from January until now, Zerrick was a little bit ahead and I thought he did some good things at times. Being thrown out there in that environment, that situation, obviously he’ll have plenty of things he can clean up just like all the guys, but I think he did fair.”
Cooper told reporters he was told that he would be the first man off the bench if Bryant could not go or if he had to exit the game early, which he did. Bryant left in the second quarter with a concussion after struggling with his ankle all night despite the optimism within Clemson’s camp that he would be 100 percent ready.
As such, Cooper prepared with both the first and second teams this week, saying he got “tons of work” and a “lot of reps.”
His first series of the night was Clemson’s first of the third quarter, and the redshirt freshman finished the night 10 of 14 passing with 88 yards. He overthrew Hunter Renfrow a couple of times, admitting that his emotions played a role early.
“I wouldn’t say (it was) mechanics. I’d just say the ball sailed on me,” Cooper said. “Being there, in a game, being in, obviously I was kind of amped up. But it’s football. Quarterbacks make bad throws.”
What appears to give Cooper the advantage over Johnson right now is the consistency Scott spoke about, which in large part stems from Cooper’s being in Clemson’s system longer. While Johnson was playing high school football in Indiana this time last year, Cooper had a front-row seat to learn Clemson’s system, watch the way Deshaun Watson carried himself and ask any question at any point while he redshirted.
To the outside world, Johnson may appear the more obvious choice on talent level alone, but only those inside of Clemson’s program know exactly what quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter and the rest of the staff see day in and day out. Swinney seemed pleased with what he saw from Cooper, who wasn’t necessarily helped out by his teammates in certain instances with missed assignments and incorrect routes.
“It was just, Zerrick was the second guy,” Swinney said. “He’s been the second guy.”
Cooper seemed pleased with how he performed given the circumstances of being thrust into a road environment with the Tigers trailing against a team they were expected to beat by 22.5 points. Chief among Clemson’s bye-week priorities will of course be to get Bryant healthy again. But in the event Cooper has to play a larger role, he seems ready to do so.
“I would say I was very comfortable minus a couple throws I would like to take back. Other than that, I think I did a great job of coming in and stepping up,” Cooper said. “In a situation like that, I think I did pretty good and just look forward to next week or whatever week’s coming up.
“I’ll be able to watch film knowing that I was being blitzed a lot, I was able to communicate with coaches (and the) offensive line, saying ‘Hey, man, let’s do this, let’s do that.’ It boosted my confidence a lot.”
Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor