Kelly Bryant proves he's ready to lead Clemson back to the playoff

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s no longer about Kelly Bryant filling the shoes of the departed Deshaun Watson. Indeed, Watson has already set the bar higher.

“He’s going to be better than me,” the former Clemson quarterback tweeted after Bryant led the Tigers to a touchdown in the first half of their dominant 47-21 victory over Louisville on Saturday night.

It’s an absurd premise, or at least it should be. Watson is a legend, the best player to don a Clemson jersey. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist each of the past two seasons, finishing third in 2015 and runner-up in 2016. He led the Tigers to consecutive national title games, winning last season’s championship with an epic final drive. No one fills those shoes.

Except, through three games, Bryant has.

He wasn’t supposed to win the starting job with more highly recruited talent on the roster, but he led the QB battle wire to wire, and it wasn’t really all that close.

He took his first snap as a starter in Week 1, and six plays into that career he’d dished out a 61-yard touchdown pass.

In his first road start, quarterback Kelly Bryant directed a Clemson whipping of Louisville and defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

He toppled his first top-25 opponent a week later, getting leveled on a tackle by Auburn’s ferocious defense that sent him to the sideline for a series. When he re-entered the game, he was a new man, a force to be reckoned with.

And then Saturday, Bryant went toe-to-toe with the reigning Heisman winner, and he outplayed Lamar Jackson by leaps and bounds.

“I just did my job, everything the coaches asked of me,” Bryant said after the game, wearing a sharp blue suit and a confident smile and offering little to suggest any of this has come as a surprise to him.

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was a bit more open to the idea that his junior quarterback wasn’t quite such a sure thing a month ago, but the performance thus far has been every bit … well, Watson-like.

“I didn’t know,” Swinney said. “I was hoping he’d take what we’d seen in practice to the opening game, and he did. I was hoping he’d respond to adversity against Auburn, and he did. I was hoping he’d man up on the road and beat these guys like a dang competitor and a confident dude, and he did.”

To be sure, so much of that poise and confidence and command of the offense is Bryant’s natural state. But a portion, too, comes from Watson. It’s the peripheral benefit of sharing a sideline with the best there ever was at Clemson, and the lessons Watson taught over the past couple years are being deployed to perfection now.

“He’s a proud father,” Swinney said. “He mentored [Bryant] for two years. Don’t discount how big that is for Kelly.”

For so much of the offseason, the chatter surrounding Bryant was some version of “be your own man.” Shaking the shadow of Watson was perhaps his biggest obstacle.

And yet, here he is, three games into his career as a starter, and the comparisons seem less a burden than a badge of honor. Bryant isn’t shaken by the past. He’s building on it.

“He was awesome, man,” receiver Ray-Ray McCloud said after Saturday’s game. “He was the best quarterback on the field. He’s just built different, the way he carries himself, his character.”

Bryant’s final numbers Saturday — 316 yards passing, 61 on the ground (not counting sacks) and 3 total touchdowns — underscored McCloud’s assertion that Bryant had clearly outdueled Jackson. But a year ago, when Louisville nearly felled Clemson at home, Watson turned the ball over four times. Bryant had no such setbacks, looking poised throughout, mixing big plays with short runs and, as Swinney noted, converting again and again on third down to keep the ball out of Jackson’s hands.

It’s still the longest of long shots that Bryant will someday eclipse Watson’s reputation at Clemson, but the idea that there will be a smooth transition from a legend to the little-known understudy is no longer a pipe dream. It’s reality, and this is Kelly Bryant’s team, a team with a real chance to win another national championship.

“Let them sleep on me,” Bryant said. “I’ve been doubted my whole career. Keep doubting.”

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