Clemson Spring Game

Clemson backup quarterback Hunter Johnson is transferring to Northwestern. File/Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — The foundation was laid the moment Trevor Lawrence announced he would be headed to Clemson to play college football. That was in December of 2016. 

The buzz ramped up in intensity when Lawrence officially signed his National Letter of Intent last December, then picked up again in January when he packed his bags and moved from Cartersville, Ga., into a Clemson dormitory to enroll early with the Tigers. 

All along, despite still being five months away from taking a snap at the college level, Lawrence's potential has been the overwhelming storyline out of Clemson's spring camp. Will he take Kelly Bryant's job? Is he the future of the program? Which of the two of them will emerge as Clemson's primary quarterback? 

Dabo Swinney is asked about it nearly every practice. 

But perhaps something — or someone — is missing. 

What about Hunter Johnson? 

For much of the spring, the best high school quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class has flown under the radar. For much of the spring, the very same five-star prospect who was projected to take Bryant's job midway through 2017 has essentially become an afterthought. 

It could be that Clemson is just so deep at the quarterback position that outsiders feel like Johnson lacks the experience of Bryant or the flashiness of Lawrence. But it also could be that pundits are missing something. It could be that they're counting him out too soon. 

Overlooking Johnson — who is more experienced than Lawrence right now — might be a bit premature. 

"Hunter is light years ahead of where he was this time last year," Swinney said. "Last year, you saw the skill. The game was fast. He was processing a lot and had a lot to think about. But he got better all year long, the game kind of slowed down for him. He's having a heck of a spring." 

While Johnson's statistics from a season ago won't jump out on a page — as a freshman he threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns — they also do not necessarily tell the full story.

When he was in high school, Johnson's coach compared his throwing form to that of New England's Tom Brady. When Johnson arrived at Clemson, the learning curve ran its course but he had his moments of brilliance when he looked confident at Louisville or connected with Tee Higgins on a 78-yard touchdown against The Citadel. That Citadel performance was so strong that Swinney even indicated Johnson, not Zerrick Cooper, would be the hypothetical second-string quarterback the following week. 

What coaches are seeing now is what they started to see as time ran its course last season: Johnson has always had supreme physical talent, and now he's catching up on the mental part of the game. In a recent scrimmage, while Bryant led all quarterbacks with four touchdowns, the rest of his understudies were equal. Johnson threw one, Chase Brice threw one and Lawrence threw one.

Asked all the way back in November, after that Citadel game, what he thought about having Lawrence come into the mix, Johnson knew what was ahead of him. 

"It’s going to be competitive," he said. "But it’s going to be fun." 

Counting him out now is not seeing the full picture. 

"Very gifted, talented young player that’s incredibly committed, focused ... (and an) excellent leader," Swinney said. "Just (someone) who’s made big strides." 

Strides that might not be overlooked for long. 

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

Grace is the Post and Courier's Clemson reporter. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism.