The first touchdown pass Deshaun Watson threw at Clemson immediately opened eyes. Watson fired a 31-yard strike between two Georgia defenders during the 2014 season opener, providing a glimpse of how good he already was as a true freshman.
Initially, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney moved slowly with Watson out of loyalty to senior quarterback Cole Stoudt. The Tigers lost two of their first three games in 2014. When Watson impressed in relief during a near-upset at No. 1 Florida State in Week 3, Swinney made the switch. If Watson had started sooner, Clemson might have won the past three ACC championships instead of two in a row.
How Watson forced his way onto the field is instructive to remember as the Tigers prepare for life after their two-time Heisman Trophy finalist. There may not be another Watson. But a four-star recruit from 2016 in Zerrick Cooper and 2017's No. 2 quarterback prospect in Hunter Johnson are on campus as enticing possibilities with no college experience.
Kelly Bryant, Chase Brice and Tucker Israel will compete with Cooper and Johnson as candidates to replace Watson. Bryant, a rising junior, will be the veteran of the group and open spring practice at No. 1. However, he was the No. 3 quarterback in 2016 because Clemson coaches felt veteran backup Nick Schuessler managed the offense better by making quicker decisions.
Clemson hit big on two quarterbacks in a row. Tajh Boyd started Clemson's rise into becoming an elite program, and Watson completed it with the national championship. Can the Tigers hit on three quarterbacks in a row? It's incredibly hard, as recent college football history shows.
Ohio State had Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones in consecutive seasons. While Urban Meyer pulled off an astonishing feat by winning the national title with his No. 3 quarterback, he struggled to determine who to play the following year.
Auburn enjoyed Cam Newton and Nick Marshall during national championship runs but missed a beat with Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley in between those years. Marshall only got signed from junior college because promising recruit Kiehl Frazier didn't pan out.
At Oregon, Darron Thomas thrived and gave way to Marcus Mariota, who excelled as the face of the program and passed the baton to ... graduate transfer Vernon Adams. He was solid but only got the call because the Ducks had no one in the wings that they had developed.
Florida State thrived with Jameis Winston and now appears to be in good hands with Deondre Francois. But in between them, the Seminoles struck out with graduate transfer Everett Golson and made do with Sean Maguire.
From 2007-15, college football's seven national championship quarterbacks who have since left averaged these stats in their title season: 64 percent passing, 2,945 yards, 27 touchdowns, six interceptions. This is how those quarterbacks' replacements fared in their first season starting: 62 percent passing, 2,253 yards, 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions.
Winning a national championship with two quarterbacks in a row is very rare. Since 1996, only Nick Saban at Alabama (Greg McElroy to AJ McCarron) and Meyer at Florida (Chris Leak to Tim Tebow) have pulled it off. It's not impossible, but that's the challenge awaiting Clemson.
"Day one in spring ball, Kelly [Bryant] is the guy, but it's open," Clemson quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter said. "Kelly deserves it. He's earned it. He's matured and has done a great job over the last two years. When he came in, he was more of a runner. He has developed so much as a decision maker, as a thrower. He brings that versatility to the table. He's the best athlete we've got."
Bryant was a three-star recruit with offers from Florida, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Duke, NC State, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Appalachian State. He was the No. 14 dual-threat quarterback as rated by the 247Sports Composite for 2015, one spot behind Lamar Jackson.
In two years, Bryant has rarely played. He has thrown only one pass when the score was within 21 points and that pass got intercepted. He's best known for this 59-yard touchdown run against Miami in 2015.
The door is also open for Cooper, who redshirted as a freshman in 2016, to compete for the job. He was a four-star recruit with offers from, among others, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Miami, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Mississippi State.
The interesting part about who Clemson picks is what it says about the offense, which showed the ability to highlight Watson as a runner and passer. Cooper and Bryant appear to fit into the dual-threat model of Watson and Boyd. Johnson and Brice, the two incoming freshmen, are considered more passing prospects.
Virtually every college in America wanted Johnson, who comes to Clemson from Indiana and after winning MVP honors at the Army All-American Game this month. He was the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit for a while until getting passed by Stanford commit Davis Mills.
Initially, Johnson committed to Tennessee and also had offers from Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma and North Carolina, among others. He flipped to Clemson in December 2015, telling 247Sports at the time, "I felt like I had a connection there when I went there. It wasn't something I was seeking out. I felt confident with my earlier decision of Tennessee at the time, but once I got there it felt right to me."
Johnson, who enrolled at Clemson this month, is considered by recruiting analysts to have premiere arm talent. He may be Clemson's most polished option in 2017 based on passing ability.
Looming in the distance: Trevor Lawrence, a dual-threat quarterback who recently committed to Clemson for 2018. He may be the most physically gifted out of the future quarterbacks as Clemson continues to become a destination for where talented passers want to play.
"Everything counts [in Clemson's 2017 quarterback competition] -- their off field, their academics, how they handle themselves, weight room," Swinney said. "Truly everything matters, everything counts. Eventually, we'll get back on the field in March, and we'll go to work and battle it out. It's going to be awesome."
It's not just Watson that Clemson's offense must replace. Also gone are running back Wayne Gallman, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, and tight end Jordan Leggett. But this is Clemson, where signing skill players hasn't been a problem in recent years.
Deon Cain, the nation's third-ranked wide receiver prospect in 2015, averaged 19.1 yards per catch and caught nine touchdowns last season. Ray-Ray McCloud, the No. 7 athlete in 2015, returns after a 49-catch season. Hunter Renfrow, a former walk-on, is back after totaling 17 catches for 180 yards and four scores vs. Alabama in the past two championship games.
Tavien Feaster, who averaged six yards per carry in limited work as a freshman, was rated the nation's No. 2 running back in 2016. The Tigers have a 2017 commitment from Tee Higgins, the No. 2 wide receiver, and signed three four-star receivers in 2016.
"The comforting thing for me and our coaching staff is we have so many weapons all over the field so it's not like this new quarterback has to come in and be a superhero and do everything," Streeter said. "We're going to have all kinds of weapons to throw to on the perimeter. We're going to have a stable of running backs and tight ends. As long as the quarterbacks can manage the game and make good decisions and put the ball in the vicinity of some of these big-time receivers, we're going to be a really good team. It's just a matter of simplifying [the offense] maybe a little bit more than Deshaun has right now."
There's only one Watson. His intelligence, work ethic and personality became the face of Clemson's program for the past three years. In the process, he mentored some of the candidates to replace him.
"These guys don't know what they're learning because they don't know anything else," Swinney said. "But they come in and sit in these meetings and Deshaun prepares like a coach. It's unbelievable the example he sets."
The bar is set for life after Deshaun Watson.