CLEMSON - Having no clue of the bad news yet to break, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris confidently and firmly defended their decision to have the quarterbacks play full-contact football after practice Monday evening.
2014 SPRING GAME
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
About an hour later, it was announced that freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson had fractured his collarbone at the end of Monday's scrimmage. The Tigers' 5-star recruit who enrolled in January will miss three weeks of action, forced to watch Saturday's spring game from the sidelines.
"Just a minor setback," Watson tweeted. "Can't wait to be back on the field with my boys in 3 weeks. Thanks for all the support & prayers."
Hindsight is 20-20, but Swinney and Morris spoke with conviction - not to mention their own personal precedent - as to why, the past two Monday afternoons, they let Watson, senior Cole Stoudt and sophomore Chad Kelly "go live."
Going live means instead of wearing purple "don't-hit-me" jerseys, the candidates to replace Tajh Boyd were fair game for defenders to tackle.
Of course, the requisite risk is higher chance of injury to a key prospect.
"You try to minimize that as much as possible, and we do," Swinney told reporters, before he knew of Watson's situation. "But the two days now that we've done that, as far as being able to evaluate and just get some more information, there's no question, it's been priceless."
On Monday, Clemson paid the price. A university release indicated Watson suffered a slight crack in his collarbone (it did not specify left or right), but he is expected to return in May for summer drills and will not need surgery.
"This is a shame because he was having an outstanding spring," Swinney said in the release. "Fortunately, this is not a serious injury. I hate that he will miss the spring game; I know a lot of people were anxious to see him make his debut in Death Valley."
Instead, the primary drivers of the Tigers' offense during Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium, open to the public for free, will be Stoudt and Kelly, who figured to be the frontrunners anyway.
Kelly knows full well about suffering a painful practice injury; he tore his ACL making a cut in the 2013 spring game, without being touched by a defender.
"Hopefully Deshaun's OK . I've never really been a fan of having the quarterback live," Kelly said. "I kind of said something last week; Coach, you couldn't do that the first two years I was here, what's up? But it is what it is."
"Talking to former quarterbacks, they're like, what, are you crazy? The coaches make the calls and I've just got to do what I've got to do."
Swinney's coaching mentor, former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, always let players hit the quarterbacks in practice. Morris said in his one year at Tulsa in 2010, the quarterbacks were live.
So Clemson's decision-makers weren't apologizing for the tactic before they heard of Watson's injury, and it doesn't sound like they'll be questioning themselves.
"You've got three guys competing for a starting job at a Division I major program," Morris said. "They've got to feel like they can get hit; otherwise, how can we make a fair assessment of a guy, when a pocket breaks down around him, with a quick whistle? You can't. When the pocket breaks down, who's making plays and who isn't?"
At any rate, Swinney and Morris seem content to let the quarterback battle drag out until August.
"There will be somebody that we might say at the end of spring, in our minds, hey if we started today, this guy'd run out there first," Swinney said. "But there's too much to happen between now and August. There's too many decisions that have to be made, too much leadership that has to be displayed, too much development to be done, to make that decision right now."
In a perfect world, would Morris have preferred somebody break away from the pack early on to make it simple and name a starter?
"Well," Morris said, before a long pause, "that would have made the decision pretty quick and pretty easy. But they weren't going to just roll over. So I've been very pleased with them."
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