Kelly Bryant

Mizzou quarterback Kelly Bryant throws a pass during practice.

Mizzou has been relatively blessed in recent years at the quarterback position. Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Lock have all vaulted from signal-caller in Columbia to NFL rosters. High draft picks Lock and Gabbert went the traditional route. Smith was selected as a WR/KR. Meanwhile, Daniel (the Mizzou GOAT) went undrafted but has managed to carve out a long NFL career as a backup QB.

Even with the talent Mizzou has seen under center, it is normally a stressful situation when a star QB rides off into the sunset and fans must wait for another to be anointed. Not this season.

Mizzou fans are eagerly awaiting this Saturday’s season-opener versus Wyoming. The Tigers will finally get to unveil its shiny, new quarterback, Kelly Bryant. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Bryant was a member of Clemson’s 2016 national championship team (as well as last year’s – sort of).

Bryant served as the backup to Deshaun Watson (now with the Houston Texans) in 2015 and 2016. After Watson was drafted into the NFL, Bryant took the wheel and steered Clemson to a 12-2 record. In the 2017 season, he passed for 2,802 yards, 13 TDs and a 131.7 QB rating. He also rushed for 665 yards and 11 TDs. Clemson advanced to the college football playoff but lost to Alabama in the semifinal matchup.

Four games into the 2018 season, despite an undefeated start, the senior QB was demoted to backup. Rather than serve as a second-wheel, spectator or cheerleader in his final season, Bryant took advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows players to play up to four games without being charged a season of eligibility. Bryant elected to transfer.

The transfer decision raised the ire of some. Haters pegged Bryant as another spoiled athlete who bolted at the first sign of adversity. That’s a foolish take. Bryant wasn’t a cocky freshman who took his ball and went home when he didn’t get to start. He was a fourth-year senior who had put in the blood, sweat and tears and accumulated a high level of success. Bryant has high hopes of playing at the next level and a benching may have prevented those aspirations from becoming a reality.

Considering that Clemson went on to the win another national championship with Trevor Lawrence, Bryant’s replacement, it’s hard to second guess the move. However, considering Bryant’s track record, it should also be hard to second guess his decision to move on and finish his college football career on his terms.

Mizzou practice

Kelly Bryant (7) stands amid defensive players during practice.

While many teams hand out championship rings to any player who had a hand in a championship season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is still salty at Bryant’s decision to leave the program and refused to offer Bryant a ring.

"He wasn't on the team. You've gotta be on the team to get a ring," Swinney told ESPN. "I love Kelly and appreciate what he did for us, but he decided to move on."

Bryant did indeed move on. In a seeming twist of fate to Mizzou’s normally dreadful luck, Bryant picked Missouri over Auburn, Mississippi State, Arkansas and North Carolina. Tigers’ fans went crazy. However, the curse that caused the infamous “Fifth Down Game” and serious injuries to star basketball players such as Kelly Thames, Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter reared its ugly head again.

In January, the NCAA announced a one-year postseason ban due to a tutoring scandal. (Missouri appealed the ruling, but the appeal has yet to be decided). Bryant could’ve bolted without penalty. He chose to stay.

Now for the first time, Mizzou boasts a starting QB with a national championship on his resume (albeit as a backup) and a college playoff berth as a starter.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound player is a dual-threat QB who is a much better passer than many people give him credit for, particularly on the deep ball. According to PFF College, in 2017, Bryant was the ACC’s top-rated passer (115.4) on throws of 20 or more yards.

Part of the reason Bryant selected Mizzou over other schools was because of the pro-style office used by Derek Dooley, Missouri’s offensive coordinator. Instead of lining up in the shotgun nearly every down, Bryant will be forced to master three-, five- and seven-step drops more commonly used in the NFL.

"I just wanted to challenge myself and learn a whole new offense,” Bryant told ESPN. "Where I want to be [playing in the NFL], I'm going to have to do it anyway, so why not go about getting a head start as quickly as possible?"

At Mizzou, he’ll get to operate behind one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. Athlon Sports ranked the Missouri offensive line as No. 9 in college football and No. 3 in the SEC behind Georgia and Alabama (No. 1 and 2 respectively in the NCAA).

Bryant will also get to throw to Albert Okwuegbunam, who is the best tight end in college football when healthy. Mizzou will also return Larry Rountree III. Roundtree rushed for 1,116 rushing yards last season and will seek to punish defenses behind Mizzou’s talented offensive line. He should help open up passing lanes for Bryant and the Tigers’ young but talented corps of receivers.

Instead of lamenting the loss of Lock, the Tigers are looking forward to the future with Bryant. Regardless of what happens with the NCAA postseason appeal, Bryant will make the Tigers a heck of a lot of fun to watch. From the buzz around Columbia, he will also help rack up the wins.

I can’t wait to see him lace up the cleats, kick off the season and beat the sleeves off Wyoming this weekend.

Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch online at stlamerican.com and on Twitter @ishcreates.

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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