Last weekend, former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant took an official visit to North Carolina to watch their game against Virginia Tech. Bryant started Clemson’s first four games of this season, as well as every game for the Tigers last year on their way to a College Football Playoff berth. All was well in Death Valley until Clemson handed the starting job to true freshman Trevor Lawrence. Two days later, Bryant announced that he’d be taking advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule (players are allowed to play in up to four games and still preserve a year of eligibility by redshirting) and, as a graduate transfer play his final year of college football next season for a new team.
North Carolina getting Bryant’s first official visit shows that a move to Chapel Hill is at the very least a real possibility. My colleague Al Hood wrote an article entailing the reasons that Bryant would be a really good fit at a crucial time for the Tar Heels next season.
For sake of debate though, let’s look at some reasons why Bryant transferring to UNC might not work out as well as we’d hope.
Crowded Quarterback Room
North Carolina’s quarterback play so far in 2018 has been, well... less than spectacular. Despite that, the four quarterbacks atop the depth chart all will return in 2019, barring any transfers out of Chapel Hill in the offseason (which is not a guarantee). The two quarterbacks who came into 2018 battling for the starting job, Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt, will both be back next fall. Plus the two true freshman this year, Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder, have been looked at more as the present rather than the future as 2018 has gone on. Even without Kelly Bryant transferring into UNC, there are at least four quarterbacks who would have a chance to compete for the starting role in week one next year.
Nathan Elliott was the guy to start the season for the first few games. By the time the Tar Heels played against Miami, Elliott was still the starter, but Chazz Surratt saw his first action of the season coming back from suspension. Surratt suffered a season ending injury to his hand against Miami, which means he only ended up seeing action in one game this season. The Virginia Tech came around after the bye week, and true freshman Cade Fortin got his first collegiate start and meaningful snaps. Fortin played well until he got rolled up on and seemed to hurt his ACL, most likely sidelining him for the remainder of the year.
Because of both these injuries, North Carolina will finish out the year with Elliott and Jace Ruder as their quarterback options going forward. At the midway point of the year, the 1-4 Tar Heels are playing for pride; there isn’t a realistic chance at a bowl game. Carolina has five games left on their schedule after the Syracuse game, and the best move would be to play Ruder as much as possible in four of those remaining games, allowing North Carolina to preserve Ruder’s red shirt year and give the coaching staff a chance to see what Ruder can do against ACC competition as a true freshman.
Whatever Fedora decides to do with his quarterback situation the rest of the way, there won’t be a clear starter going into 2019. It’s possible Bryant comes in and wins the job for a year, allowing both Fortin and Ruder one more year of development on the bench and moving on completely from Surratt and Elliott. When Bryant took his official visit to Chapel Hill, he said that Fedora was really honest about the quarterback situation. After that conversation, Bryant reportedly said that “UNC’s chances increased.”
Does Bryant want a quarterback competition with two younger players sitting behind him, though? He just lost his starting job to a younger quarterback and he left Clemson because he only has one more year to play college football and wants to actually play. If Carolina starts next season 0-2 or 1-3 there’s a solid chance that Fedora would go to one of his younger options. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is coaching for a national championship this year and he wasn’t afraid to roll with a younger option ahead of Bryant. The only coaching situation more desperate than coaching for a national championship is coaching for your job. That’s exactly where Larry Fedora could be next season (he’s arguably already there) and Bryant will have to really think about everything going on with the quarterbacks already in Chapel Hill before deciding to join an already crowded QB room.
Kelly Bryant committed to Clemson in April of 2014. The season before Bryant’s commitment, Clemson went 11-2 and defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in every season since 2011, have been in the College Football Playoff the last three years, and have a good shot to make it back to the playoffs again this season. And let’s not forget that Bryant was a part of the school’s first national championship team since 1981. He wasn’t a meaningful part of that team, but he got his ring.
In Bryant’s collegiate career he’s averaged less than two losses per season. North Carolina has a chance to be improved next season, especially on offense (see below), but for players who are used to winning on a consistent level and competing for a championship every season, going to a team whose ceiling is essentially bowl eligibility can be uncomfortably jarring. Even with UNC’s expected improvement, Bryant could have more losses in one season in Chapel Hill than his entire career at Clemson, and that could very easily take a toll on him.
If Bryant came to North Carolina, he’d be fully aware of the state of the program, and he’s not going to play his last season at a school where he’s uncomfortable. Even if that’s the case and he decides that North Carolina is the best place for him to finish his NCAA career, it’s still going to be a big adjustment for a quarterback who hasn’t lost more than one game in a season as a starter since his junior year of high school in 2013.
Returning Offensive Starters
North Carolina returns pretty much every offensive starter next season. Wideout Thomas Jackson is the only senior who is considered a starter. Whoever plays quarterback next year for North Carolina will be playing behind a much more experienced offensive line and getting the ball to a deep group of talented skill position players.
The one X-factor here is Anthony Ratliff-Williams. ARW will still have one year of eligibility, but there is an outside chance he would test the NFL waters after this season. It’s an outside chance because his draft ceiling right now would probably be the 3rd round if someone took a flyer on him because of his return abilities. (Much) More realistically however, he would be taken somewhere on the third day of the draft.
Ratliff-Williams has NFL talent, and he’ll play on Sundays. Whether that’s in 2019 or 2020 will depend on the second half of the season, as well as the feedback he receives from the NFL Draft advisory board. Underclassman have until January 15th to declare for the draft or return to school.
The tricky part of this is that Bryant will likely have committed to his next school before the deadline for ARW to declare. If Bryant’s decision comes down to UNC and one other school, whether or not Ratliff-Williams suits up for Carolina in 2019 could become a tiebreaker for Bryant’s services.
While it’s a possibility that Ratliff-Williams does declare early and turn pro in 2019, it’s more realistic that he stays for his senior year. This is still something to watch for though regarding Bryant’s transfer.
Kelly Bryant’s Future
Kelly Bryant is a good quarterback who can contribute to a lot of teams next season and help them win. Bryant has an official visit to Arkansas already scheduled. Missouri and Louisville have also expressed interest in bringing Bryant into their programs but as of this writing, he has not scheduled an official visit to either school.
If he did come to North Carolina he’d probably be the best immediate option for Carolina and could help the Tar Heels get back to bowl eligibility next season. If Bryant came to Chapel Hill then fans should be excited. Best case scenario for Bryant as a Tar Heel is UNC plays in a bowl game in 2019. The worst case scenario, though, is the Tar Heels getting off to a rough start, Fedora benching Bryant for one of the Fortin/Ruder duo, and Bryant finishing his career how he would have at Clemson with no shot at the NFL. Carolina could very well have a Brandon Harris 2.0 situation at quarterback in 2019.
Because of the quarterback situation already at Chapel Hill, where UNC is as a program, and the number of contenders who could use Bryant to become legitimate threats to get into the playoffs in 2019, Bryant and UNC maybe should mutually break up without actually getting together. Bryant should go somewhere where he’ll be the unquestioned starter for a top program that can help him prepare for the NFL, and UNC should use the offseason to develop Ruder and help Fortin recover from his knee injury so that they play in a bowl game in 2019, while being set up better for the future.