NEW ORLEANS — Kelly Bryant heard it all. Every narrative, every hot take, every doubt — they all made their way back to Clemson’s starting quarterback one way or another over the course of 2017.
After Deshaun Watson left the program and the No. 1 Clemson football team had what appeared to be a gaping hole at the quarterback position, outsiders told Bryant everything. First, he says he was told he wasn’t even a quarterback — that he should consider changing positions. Then he was told he should transfer. When he won the job, he heard he would never lead Clemson back to another College Football Playoff and that this year would be different than 2016.
Occasionally, Bryant found the criticism humorous.
“I was like, ‘I really haven’t (even) played much for a lot of people to tell me to switch positions. Like, at least give me a chance,' " he said.
But other times, it hurt.
“I tried not to pay attention to that. It was just, ‘Well, OK. Like a slap in the face, I’m going to take it. But I’m just going to come back and work and see if they’re saying that throughout the course of the season.' "
He became obsessive in offseason workouts and pored tirelessly over the playbook.
Thirteen games into Clemson’s season as the Tigers’ bonafide starter, Bryant was still answering questions about Watson as recently as this week at the Sugar Bowl. That narrative might never go away for him; it is possible it will always linger so long as Bryant is at Clemson.
But the questions about his ability as Clemson’s leader have been answered. On Monday night against No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl of the College Football Playoff semifinal, he has another chance to inch his own narrative forward again.
“I think the biggest difference from where he was the first 2½ years to where he showed up in August, he was a different player. A different quarterback. The confidence he had, the ability to throw the ball, understanding what we’re doing offensively. It was really night and day,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “From our perspective, he’s been the same all year long. That’s one of the reasons that we’re sitting here today is because of is his consistency. That’s one of the best traits you can have in your quarterback.”
Bryant has a calmness about him every week that will be vital Monday night on the biggest stage he has played in this season. If he is nervous, he masked it well this week in New Orleans, where he was loose and jovial, barring some uncomfortable body language when the Watson questions came back up.
He talked about picking out his outfit for game day — “I think y’all will be impressed —” and he spent most of his media availability Saturday cracking jokes on stage with his teammates. At one point, he even beatboxed straight into a microphone.
But of course he allowed time for reflection, too. A win punches him into a national championship over the best team Clemson has played all year.
“It’s been surreal. It’s been a blessing. It’s been a joy to be a part of,” Bryant said. “It’ll just be a dream come true.”