CLEMSON — It’s too bad Nick Schuessler can’t reach into his big bag of years of eligibility for just one more.
Anyone monitoring Clemson football with an eye on the future, figuring Deshaun Watson leaves for next spring’s NFL draft, can see there’s plenty of uncertainty at the quarterback position for the 2017 season. It could be work-in-progress Kelly Bryant, 2016 redshirt Zerrick Cooper or one of their 2017 recruits, Hunter Johnson or Chase Brice, a product of Grayson (Ga.) High School, Schuessler’s alma mater.
Schuessler, a fifth-year senior who has already graduated with a degree in accounting, is rounding into form just in time to leave the program at the conclusion of this season.
“Absolutely,” Schuessler said Saturday, with a deep belly laugh, asked if he wishes he could return in 2017.
Schuessler holds a much more important distinction right now. Late in the first half of Clemson’s 54-0 win over Syracuse on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Watson bruised his shoulder (that’s per a team release, though head coach Dabo Swinney termed it a possible “stinger” in his neck and shoulder area) and was held out of action the rest of the afternoon with the Tigers holding a big lead.
The situation presented an alarming hypothetical for Clemson: what if Watson was injured more severely anytime the rest of this season? Championship windows are only open so long, and no one player on the Tigers’ roster is more valuable than their 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist.
Schuessler might have alleviated some of those fears against a generous Syracuse defense, performing calmly, admirably and maturely with 11 completions in 17 attempts for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He’d previously never thrown more than five passes in a game against FBS competition, and in 3½ years in uniform had one career touchdown before Saturday.
“He just went out there and performed,” Watson said.
This is how long Schuessler has waited his turn: he initially signed with Mississippi State in February 2012 and spent that summer in Starkville behind, among other QBs, a redshirt freshman named Dak Prescott (who’s now starring for the Dallas Cowboys). Schuessler transferred to Clemson that fall when Tajh Boyd was halfway through his Clemson tenure.
“It was good to finally get out there and get some time,” Schuessler said. “I was happy with the way I played. There’s a bunch of stuff I need to improve on, but it was fun to get out there finally.”
Players and coaches often depict backups with this objective: prepare like they’re going to play, because they’re a rolled ankle away from replacing a starter.
In Schuessler’s case, he’s a bruised shoulder away from replacing an All-American field general. Considering Schuessler is in his last year with the Tigers and won’t play meaningful reps unless Watson is hurt, few would blame him for going through the motions.
“It’s hard being a senior that hasn’t had an opportunity to start, you start getting toward the end of your career, you’re playing behind such a talented guy,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “That’s a guy ready for his opportunity. Playing behind a great player like Deshaun Watson. I thought he did a really good job coming in.”
In postgame interviews, Schuessler sounded unwilling to let his collegiate career fade away anonymously.
“I’ve spent too much time standing on the sidelines to go out there and play scared,” Schuessler said. “I’ve waited for my opportunity. I was able to go out there tonight and cut it loose. That’s what I was most proud of. I felt so comfortable being out there. It helps to throw to guys like Mike Williams and Deon Cain and Jordan Leggett.
“Me being a fifth-year guy, being in the offense for five years, I feel so much more comfortable than I did a few years ago when I went out there.”
Schuessler, a pro-style passer, and Bryant, a run-first threat, have been listed as co-starters on the depth chart behind Watson the past two years. As suspected, Schuessler holds more of the coaches’ trust, in case Watson goes down.
“He’s been our No. 2 all year long. What we’ve said is, it depends on the situation,” Swinney said. “What y’all saw (Saturday) is what we see in practice all the time. Nick Schuessler has been tremendous all fall, all spring.
“Pretty comforting situation to see him go in there and show his teammates confidence. It was awesome, because you never know. You’ve got to be ready. It’ll pay off for us if we need him the rest of the season.”