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Clemson looking to establish QB depth behind Deshaun Watson during spring practice
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) throws a pass against South Carolina during the first half last season in Clemson, S.C. - photo by Rainer Ehrhardt

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is looking for a few good backups.

Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson will be starter after becoming the face of the program despite being sidelined with injuries in his freshman debut season. Behind him, though, Clemson has a little-used backup Nick Schuessler and two freshmen — Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel, who enrolled early.

It's a situation Swinney's not used to, but the coach is using spring practice to rectify. He says the redshirt junior Schuessler has the early lead to be Clemson's No. 2 quarterback. The newcomers, though, are improving with each practice.

Watson can't practice while he recovers from surgery on a torn ACL suffered last November.

"Whoever your backup is, he's one rolled ankle away from going in and we're expected to win. When the backup comes in they don't turn the scoreboard off," Swinney said. "Walk-on, true freshman, it doesn't matter."

It's a depth question Swinney's not used to, but hopes to rectify in spring practice. He said the redshirt junior Schuessler has the early lead on Clemson's No. 2 quarterback. The newcomers, though, are improving with each practice.

Watson can't practice while he recovers from surgery on a torn ACL suffered last November.

It's the first time in several springs Clemson hasn't had a solid rotation to take snaps in their high-paced offense. Two seasons ago, Tajh Boyd was a senior returning for his final year, Cole Stoudt was the longtime No. 2 and Chad Kelly a talented, first-year player aiming to crack the depth chart.

In 2014, Stoudt led the pack as Boyd's heir apparent with Kelly and the freshman Watson dueling for the backup job.

That competition ended when Kelly was dismissed from the team last April after arguing with coaches on the sidelines of Clemson's spring game.

Watson figured to draw most snaps this spring after throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games. But he needed ACL surgery on his left knee after tearing it during a practice in late November. Watson had surgery in December and his recovery is ahead of schedule, according to Swinney.

Watson's expected to open the season in September. But who might step in should he get hurt — Watson had collarbone, finger and knee injuries last year — is a major concern.

Schuessler has thrown 10 career passes in eight appearances over the past two years as Clemson's third string passer.

Swinney knew, with Watson on the sideline, Schuessler could have been overwhelmed. So far, though, the coach said Schuessler has risen to the challenge.

"I was very curious to see how he was going to come to work this spring," Swinney said. "He has really asserted himself (saying), 'Hey, I'm the leader. Let's go.'"

Bryant is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound player from Calhoun Falls, who's the cousin of former Clemson standout receiver Martavis Bryant. Israel, from Orlando, Florida, broke Tim Tebow's Florida state prep record with 56 touchdowns his senior year.

The college game, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said, is not always a quick and easy step forward.

"Obviously, you have young quarterbacks that should be in high school," Elliott said. "It is going to be beneficial for them in the long run."

Elliott is also pleased with Schuessler's strong showing through the first part of spring drills. Clemson will take next week off with the school on spring break and Elliott is confident all his quarterbacks will take the time away to keep learning and growing.

That includes Watson, too.

He is a continual presence on the sidelines at practice, encouraging teammates and coordinating plays. Watson said he tries to get inside the minds of his coaches — Swinney, Elliott, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter — and think about the game plan the way they do.

"Each day," he said, "is just learning something new."

Watson hopes he can sharpen his backups and get them ready if necessary.

"You never know when that time is going to come for the younger guys," he said.

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