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Clemson will be just fine in post Deshaun Watson Era

CLEMSON, SC - NOVEMBER 05: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during pre-game between the Clemson Tigers and the Syracuse Orange on November 05, 2016, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. Clemson defeated Syracuse 54-0. (Photo by Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire).
(Photo by Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire).

Well, it’s official. The Deshaun Watson era will soon come to an end at Clemson.

Head coach Dabo Swinney announced that Watson, along with running back Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, will all forgo their senior seasons in Columbia, S.C. and enter the 2017 NFL Draft.

“Those guys indicated to me back in the summer that this was going to be it for them,” Swinney said via ESPN. “They were going to graduate in December and their plan was to be a senior. They’re more seniors than some of the seniors.”

All four players are actually juniors this season, but Swinney indicated that the team will honor them just the same during senior day this Saturday when No. 3 Clemson (9-0, 6-0 ACC) takes on Pittsburgh (5-4, 2-3 ACC).

“All those guys are planning on moving on,” Swinney said. “Definitely want to honor them while we have the opportunity. They’ve earned it.”

If the Tigers continue their undefeated streak, they’ll certainly make the College Football Playoffs, which means that barring injury, Watson would be guaranteed four more games with the Tigers. He could play five with the last one being the National Championship. Clemson finishes the season off with Pitt (5-4), Wake Forest (6-3) and South Carolina (5-4), so an undefeated season is not guaranteed, but it will be hard to count out a team that has already beaten No. 3 Louisville and No. 12 FSU (on the road) this season.

Perhaps Watson hasn’t been the undisputed Heisman candidate many thought he would be this season — that distinction likely goes to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — but the junior from Gainesville, Ga., has still had a great year. He’s thrown for 2,497 yards and 24 touchdowns, though he has thrown 10 interceptions. Consistently a dual-threat, Watson has also rushed for 370 yards and two touchdowns.

Watson has been one of the main reasons for Clemson’s emergence at the top of the college football world and it’s going to be tough to see him go for fans of the Tigers. He’s a former four-star recruit, ranked as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 recruiting cycle, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. In three seasons with the Tigers, he’s thrown for more than 8,000 yards, and more than 70 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for more than 1,500 yards and is nearing 20 touchdowns on the ground.

He’ll be a tough quarterback to replace, but it’s not like Swinney and his staff won’t have options.

Sophomore Kelly Bryant, a former three-star dual-threat quarterback (No. 14 in the 2015 class), will bring some of the explosion that Watson possesses, so he could end up being an interesting option for the Tigers. Despite playing in only eight games as a backup quarterback in 2015, he was Clemson’s fifth-leading rusher, putting up 156 yards and two touchdowns (6.8 yards per carry). Bryant has played in three games this season, throwing for 48 yards and a touchdown while rushing only 10 times for 17 yards.

Freshman Zerrick Cooper may also be another option based on the strength of his recruiting profile. He’s a former four-star dual-threat quarterback, ranked as the No. 7 player in his category from the 2016 class. He hasn’t played yet this year, so he will most likely enter 2017 as a redshirt freshman.

But then there’s Hunter Johnson, who may end up getting most of the hype at quarterback despite the fact that he’ll be coming in as a true freshman.

Photo Credit: 247Sports

Photo Credit: 247Sports

This is considering he remains committed to Clemson, of course, but right now the five-star quarterback from Brownsburg, Ind. (Brownsburg), is the Tigers’ second-highest rated 2017 commitment and he could end up being the eventual replacement to Watson if his potential is to be believed.

Johnson is ranked as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class, and he’s considered to be the No. 21 overall recruit in America. He has a big body and frame at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds — just about every major college football program in the country wanted his commitment. He committed to Clemson over many other offers, including Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Penn State, among others.

Johnson has a strong arm, a quick release and a very pretty, tight-spiraled throw. He puts a lot of strength behind his throws and gets a ton of zip on his footballs. He can be accurate and hit just about any throw on the field, which means he may be ready to play college football from day one at Clemson.

He does appear to be a prototypical pro-style quarterback, but that doesn’t mean Johnson can’t run with the football. Clemson won’t have to change its offense much, because he does have the athleticism and speed to run when things break down, and he can execute play-action and roll-out passes at a high level. Sure, Johnson doesn’t have the athleticism of Watson, but not many do. For a player who will end up being a true freshman in 2017, Johnson possesses all the abilities to be a starting quarterback at the college football level.

Clemson is going to be just fine at quarterback. Losing Watson will sting, but other than that, don’t expect his jump to the NFL to really hurt the Tigers in the long-run.

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