NEW ORLEANS — Kelly Bryant’s head was down, his eyes were glued to the ground. But then, a gentle grin.
He looked up. Dabo Swinney was walking toward him.
After the No. 1 Clemson football team lost to No. 4 Alabama 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl of the College Football Playoff semifinal Monday, Swinney made his rounds in Clemson’s locker room, stopping at individual lockers to give hugs and words of encouragement and praise to his players.
He started with sophomore running back Tavien Feaster, he finished with junior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and in the middle he wrapped his arms around Bryant, his junior quarterback.
“You good?” Swinney said.
“I'm good,” Bryant smiled.
And for a brief moment, he had some reprieve.
It did not end the way Bryant would have liked Monday night in the Superdome for No. 1 Clemson, who instead of heading to Atlanta for a third straight national championship appearance begins the offseason early. Clemson never scored a touchdown, a first under the direction of co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott since they took over their new jobs in 2014.
The Tigers did not gain a first down until the second quarter, they averaged just 1.9 yards per rush and 2.7 yards per play. Bryant threw two interceptions, though he was hit on one as he let the ball go and on the other a ball was tipped.
In the coming days, his Clemson coaches and teammates want him to know Clemson’s offense did not fail like it did Monday because of his play. The reality is the 2017 Clemson team would have never been what it was without Bryant, who opened the season with loads of criticism and uncertainty and closed it having proven himself weekly.
“Oh I mean the first thing I tell him is how proud I am of him,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “To come into this season where not a lot of people even thought he was going to be our starting quarterback and then be able to lead us to 12 wins, lead us to an ACC Championship — his play is one of the reasons we were here (Monday). One night is not going to define a player or define a season or anything like that.”
Bryant ends his junior year with the Tigers with eight interceptions, 13 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing scores. With projected-phenom Trevor Lawrence enrolling early at Clemson, natural questions arise about what that means for Bryant moving forward. It seems likely Bryant will retain his job given how far he paced the Tigers this season and the trust he earned from the personnel.
After the game was over, he was patient and kind in his media obligations, though his body language told the story of his emotions internally.
“One thing I know about him,” Scott said, “he’s going to compete and give you everything he’s got.”
Bryant echoed that sentiment.
“I feel like it was a good year. I feel like as a team, we did everything that was asked of us throughout the course of the regular season,” he said. “Came up short a little bit, so now we’ll just look back on it and not let anything take away from this moment that we have. It was very special and I’m thankful to be a part of it. Guys embraced me as a leader on this team.”