Swinney loves QB battle during open date

CUTigers publisher Roy Philpott talks to head coach Dabo Swinney about the ongoing quarterback "controversy" and more in this report.

We probably should have seen this coming. After all, we knew Deshaun Watson was good and we knew if Clemson didn't start the season 2-0 fans would be clamoring for him to get more playing time.

And entering the first of two open dates this year for the Clemson Tigers, that's exactly where we are.

The message boards and social media tell the story:

"Free Watson!" one poster writes on the CUTigers.com premium message board The Valley earlier this week.

"Deshaun Watson needs to be the starter... looks so good today!" writes another.

"It's so obvious who gives Clemson the best chance to win," can often be read on twitter too.

Not so fast.

While it's obvious Watson has a higher upside and his future is extremely bright, it may not be in Clemson's best interest to start a true freshman on the road against the No. 1 team in the land who also happens to be the defending National Champion and is currently on an 18-game winning streak.

What happens after Clemson's trip to Tallahassee remains to be seen, but it's pretty clear right now the Clemson coaching staff is still confident in Cole Stoudt.

"People forget we've been evaluating these guys since January. You have a system in place and Cole won the job in spring practice and came back and was clearly No. 1 in fall camp," notes Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. "It's really that simple. But it's pretty easy to see we have a special talent in Deshaun Watson and that's why we said up front, 'hey we are going to play this guy.'"

"We want the competition to continue. It's like we told Cole, 'this isn't a lifetime contract.' The next step in evaluation is we have a clear starter, but we also have a clear starter who is not starting. So the next step is let's go play some games and continue the evaluation process."

And that evaluation continued during Clemson's practice sessions this week.

Both players continue to get reps with the first team in practice and both players continue to compete for the starting spot.

"From a coaches standpoint, we love it," he said. "We have a level of competition we have a sense of urgency that's going to create a high level of play like it already has. Cole is highlight motivated to lead this team and maximize his opportunity and Deshaun is highly motivated to play more. And it's not just the game too- it's practice and in the film room."

Still, the fans see what they want to see.

Watson's production, in limited snaps, has been through the roof. And an average quarterback doesn't go right down the field on the road at No. 12 Georgia, leading his team to a touchdown, in his first career drive, right?

He glides when he runs, making the difficult appear easy and his arm strength has been surprisingly good as well.

So what is keeping him on the bench? Outside of the fact Stoudt has more experience in this offense, Swinney says there is one thing Watson needs to get a better grasp of.

"He's got a very good understanding of what we do. The fact we are having this conversation tells you how special he is," he admitted. "But he still lacks experience and he still is not in total command of his protections. He took a sack in the Georgia game he shouldn't have taken.

"I love his ability to extend plays. He avoided a sack against South Carolina State that was special. That was a DNA play. He's got a good feel for where his receivers are. But his overall experience and command of protections and decision making within the system - he's got to improve there."

It's also important not to downplay what Stoudt has done up to this point too.

For the most part, he's put Clemson in the right protections, made the right reads and done exactly what the staff has asked of him. He's even been fairly productive in the running game as well.

"Cole Stoudt has played outstanding," Swinney reiterates. "I know people want to see what they want to see sometimes but from a coaching perspective he's played well. He's had two or three plays here or there but so has Deshaun. Cole has proven that he's the starter and we all have confidence in the world in him, but Deshaun has proven he's getting better every day and he's definitely closed that gap."

So the competition continues as the gap between the two quarterbacks continues to shrink.

At this juncture, is it fair to suggest it's only a matter of time? Is there anything Stoudt can do to keep the job or is it a foregone conclusion Watson will eventually overtake him?

If Stoudt starts in Tallahassee and Clemson upsets No. 1 Florida State, a lot of this discussion would obviously subside. But if Clemson loses to the Seminoles, perhaps this becomes a different conversation.

Swinney notes, "I think he's (Watson) proven to everybody he's going to be the guy at some point, it's just a question of when it is. Is he going to win the job this year? Is it going to be next year? I have no idea. We weren't afraid to play him in Athens, then we sure aren't afraid to play him in Tallahassee. So we'll see how it plays out."

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