Cole Stoudt has always had to operate in the shadow of Tajh Boyd. Playing as the understudy to the Clemson signal caller for three years, he only saw limited activity, spending most of his time holding a clipboard. Gradually worked into the Clemson offense, he expected to become the starter this year and was named so by Dabo Swinner in the preseason.
But behind Stoudt stood Deshaun Watson, a highly-recruited true freshman bearing physical resemblance and skills to Boyd. After losing two of the first three games, both against FBS opponents, Swinney pulled the plug on Stoudt, handing the reigns to his prized youngster. The team responded by pummeling two Tobacco Road schools in North Carolins and NC State.
During Clemson's win over Louisville last week, their third in a row, Watson fell injured, meaning it's Stoudt's time once again. The senior from Ohio gets the start on Saturday after being relegated to second string status for the last three games. With Stoudt comes a much different look at the Clemson offense, one that could play into the Eagles' favor and give them a much more level playing field when it comes to hunting for a win.
In order to understand how much the offense changes with Stoudt, let's break down the stats. Stoudt started two games against FBS opponents this year, Georgia and Florida State. Despite racking up 73 points in a win, the Tigers lost both "big boy" starts under the senior. In those games, they sustained zero "long drives" while spending the majority of their time getting kicked off the field.
In two games against FBS teams, Clemson ran 15 drives under three minutes ending in a punt. Two more quick drives ended in turnovers. They scored only five touchdowns, two of which were on long sustained drives of more than three minutes. Only one drive went longer than five minutes, and that ended in a missed field goal (so not the offense's fault). That works out to an average of only a couple of touchdowns per game, just around the 20 point mark. You'll be hard pressed to find a coach who believes his team can win a football game with 14-20 points.
Compare that to Watson. After taking over, Clemson averaged over 40 points per game in destroying the defenses of both the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. Injured last week and now expected to miss a month, the Clemson offense again went rudderless in squeaking out a 23-17 win over the Cardinals. Against NC State, the only common opponent between Clemson and BC at present, the Tiger offense ran five drives, scoring four touchdowns. All except for one went for over 40 yards, and they showed an ability to burn up the field with 80-yard and 60-yard drives in less than three minutes.
What does this tell us? Well it's hard to point to Stoudt and single him as the reason Clemson struggled when they faced three of the best defenses on their schedule, but it's easy to say that the team improved vastly with Watson under center.
It also tells us that Clemson has a hard time reworking their offense around different types of quarterbacks. At 6'4", Stoudt has tremendous pocket presence. He has decent touch and patience. He doesn't so much make plays with his feet as he does with his brain, waiting for the play to develop before delivering a pass. Instead of taking off up field, Stoudt can stand in the pocket and deliver the ball with much more precision.
Unfortunately, that might not be what Clemson needs. The Tigers run the spread, meaning they want to go fast. They don't need a QB who can stand in and deliver the ball; they need a guy who can move from side-to-side and make plays with his vision. While Stoudt has the vision and ability to read a defense, he lacks the lateral movement of both Boyd and Watson, especially considering that Boyd was a top-15 finisher at the NFL combine in the three-cone drill measuring player agility despite running an incredibly slow 40-yard dash and 20-yard shuttle.
As a senior, Stoudt should have physically separated himself as the clear-cut starter for Clemson, but that's never really happened. Sophomore Chad Kelly went head-to-head with him during the spring before being dismissed from the program, and it's obvious the future of the program is in Watson's hands. While it's not a doubting of his physical abilities, we have to ask if he is the right guy to fit inside this program's makeup.
Let's extrapolate that to the BC equation. There's a reason Clemson fans are nervous heading into this week. If BC can get after the quarterback, Stoudt shouldn't be able to make the same escape movements as Boyd, not unless the scouting reports are horribly inaccurate. He most resembles Blake Frohnapfel, a guy who can make plays with his feet but isn't going to beat you that way (or even like Chase Rettig in that regard). It's possible if a play breaks down, he can take off. But if the BC defensive front seven can rattle his cage a little bit, they can break up Clemson's day.
I believe Stoudt will be able to pick apart this secondary if he has time in the pocket. I don't believe he's the type of quarterback who is sacked very easily, not with the talent Clemson possesses on offense. I don't believe he's going to miss many throws if the defense gives them to him. But I believe there is a very obvious way to beat Clemson with him starting: blitz, don't give him time to set up, and take away his check downs. If he fades back and the first option is covered, don't give him enough time to look for a second option. Take that away, and he's not going to take off or move. He's going to wait. And that means he's going to get hit.
I realize I make Cole Stoudt look like a bad quarterback; he's not. He has great physical attributes, and I believe he can destroy a defense if given the time to look for the right option. He's incredibly patient, smart, and has a laser for an arm. But this is a great opportunity for BC. Deshaun Watson is much more athletic and much better suited to the Clemson spread offense. Stop Stoudt, and the rest should fall into place.