Andrea AdelsonESPN Staff Writer
CLEMSON, S.C. — Dabo Swinney had something to say about Chase Brice. Well, more than one thing. This is Dabo Swinney, after all.
“If you have really paid attention … I’ve been talking about Chase Brice since the spring,” Swinney began. Then he launched into what sounded like an I-told-you-so soliloquy, perhaps as a way to quell the collective freak-out that ensued after his Clemson team needed its third-string quarterback to rally the Tigers past Syracuse on Saturday.
“I’m telling y’all, this kid can play!” Swinney continued. “I’m not surprised. We recruited him — he was one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the country! Won a state championship. He’s got a lot of swag. A lot of moxie. He can sling it!”
For months, Swinney told anyone who would listen that he truly believed he had three quarterbacks on his roster who could win an ACC title: Kelly Bryant, who had already won a league crown last season; true freshman Trevor Lawrence; and Brice, a redshirt freshman from Grayson, Georgia.
With Bryant gone and Lawrence injured early against Syracuse, Brice showed he could win an ACC game. Lawrence goes into this week in the school’s concussion protocol, so Clemson might need Brice to prove Swinney right once again, at Wake Forest on Saturday.
Not many thought it would come to this when Brice signed with Clemson in 2017, as a four-star prospect with a 37-4 high school record. He was largely overlooked in that class, the less-heralded Clemson quarterback recruit behind ESPN 300 prospect Hunter Johnson. Throughout 2017, though, Brice showed his coaches why they signed him.
He ran the scout team and so thoroughly impressed defensive coordinator Brent Venables, he repeatedly told Swinney, “This kid is a baller.”
Then in 2018, another ESPN 300 quarterback took all the headlines: Lawrence, the No. 1-rated prospect at his position. Brice was fourth behind Bryant, Johnson and Lawrence when spring practice opened. When it ended, Johnson transferred, and all the quarterback talk centered on the battle between Bryant and Lawrence.
Reality said Swinney would never need Brice unless something drastic happened.
Then, something drastic happened: Bryant decided last week that he would leave the team and transfer after losing his starting job. Lawrence started against Syracuse, took a hit to the head in the second quarter, and left the game.
Brice calmly grabbed his helmet and told his teammates, “We’re going to be fine, and nothing’s going to change.” But how many outside the Clemson sideline had faith Brice could lead a team struggling to score?
Kelly Bryant started trending on social media. Could he actually rejoin the team?
Inside the locker room at halftime, nobody uttered Bryant’s name. Offensive coaches huddled around Brice and told him, “You got this.”
“The biggest thing we told him is relax and go play ball, and you’ve got a lot of talent and experience around you, you don’t have to do it all yourself,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “All we need you to do is drive the car.”
Clemson coaches prepared Brice for this moment all week. As third-string quarterback, Brice rarely took any practice reps. But as the backup, Brice split practice reps with Lawrence. Film prep took on even greater meaning. Scott said he and co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott sat in on quarterback meetings just to be sure Lawrence and Brice were fully prepared.
Offensive coaches challenged their players, anticipating what could happen. “We told our offensive guys this week, we’ve got a lot more games to play,” Scott said. “The chances Trevor gets hurt is probably going to happen, and everybody in the stadium is going to go silent. But we can’t go silent offensively.”
Without Bryant, Clemson had three freshmen on its quarterback depth chart, plus emergency No. 4 option Hunter Renfrow, a wide receiver. As much as they disagreed with the decision Bryant made, the Tigers had no time to dwell on it.
Especially after Lawrence got hurt.
Clemson made a concerted effort to run the ball behind Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice. The plan started to work in the fourth quarter, just as Brice settled into a rhythm. Syracuse opened a 23-13 lead with 12:58 remaining, but Brice said, “The whole second half, we didn’t act like we were losing.”
Brice avoided looking at the clock and pretended he was back at practice. Clemson closed to 23-20 and got the ball back at the 6-yard line with 6:06 remaining. The Tigers’ run game got them down to the Clemson 48, where they needed to convert a fourth-and-6 with 2:38 to go.
“I knew we were going to go for it,” Brice said. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.”
Coaches called a pass play for Brice, who found Tee Higgins with a perfectly thrown pass for a 20-yard gain. Then on first down, Brice took the ball on a run-pass option and sprinted for 17 yards, shocking even his coaches. At that point, it felt inevitable Clemson would win. Etienne scored on a 2-yard run with 41 seconds left to seal the fourth-quarter comeback and give Brice his own special place in Clemson history.
“I’ll always remember, as long as Chase is here, fourth-and-6 with the game on the line,” Scott said.
“Can you imagine being put in that position?” Venables asked afterward. “I’m just telling you, he’s a player. Mark it down.”
It all seemed so hard to believe afterward. Since last season ended, three quarterbacks have transferred from Clemson. But Brice stuck with the Tigers, believing his day would come. He had the largest crowd around him during his very first postgame media appearance, reporters and television cameras crowded into a small corner, jockeying for position.
After the hoopla died down a bit, Brice was asked to reflect on his journey the past year. He got lost in the moment.
“Can you repeat the question?” he asked.
He listened more intently.
“Just trusting in yourself and what you know you can do,” Brice said. “I knew sooner or later I’d get a shot. They always preach on it: Make the most of your opportunity. So going out there and doing that, it’s a good feeling and it brings a lot of confidence.”
“You think he’s gonna stroll around campus on Monday with his chest stuck out?” Swinney said. “That’s pretty cool. ‘Cause now he’s led the Tigers to a win. Not only did he lead the Tigers to a win, he did it with the game on the line.”