HEAD COACH: Dabo Swinney, 40-21 in 5 seasons at Clemson
LAST YEAR: 11-2 overall (7-1 ACC)
LAST BOWL GAME: Defeated LSU, 25-24, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December
RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: 7
RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS: 6
IMPACT PLAYERS: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, DE Vic Beasley
QUESTION MARKS: While the offense is capable of plastering 40 on the board any day, the defense has shown an equal propensity to be gashed by mediocre opponents. A lack of proven defensive backs — the secondary may rely on true freshmen too early — is concerning. A tailback pecking order must be addressed.
CLEMSON — There’s some friendly dispute over the exact moment Tajh Boyd and Chad Morris became the dynamic duo envied and admired by football offenses across the country.
Aug. 31 Georgia 8 p.m.
Sept. 7 SC State 12:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 at NC State 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 28 Wake Forest TBA
Oct. 5 at Syracuse TBA
Oct. 12 Boston College TBA
Oct. 19 Florida State TBA
Oct. 26 at Maryland TBA
Nov. 2 at Virginia TBA
Nov. 14 Georgia Tech 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 23 Citadel TBA
Nov. 30 at South Carolina TBA
“I think it was pretty obvious that first fall, that stretch when it seemed like Championship Road there,” said Clemson wide receivers coach Jeff Scott, referring to the 8-0 start in 2011, Boyd’s first year as starting quarterback and Morris’ first year as offensive coordinator. “They just kind of clicked. Once they started having success, all the players believed in it.”
“Maybe Auburn (to open) last year,” said tight ends coach Danny Pearman. “I think about games where they clicked in a positive way and say, ‘Hey, this kid’s got a good feel for what he can do and what Chad’s calling.’ ”
Morris thinks it took even longer than that: the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“I just think that LSU game really demonstrated: (Boyd) said, ‘OK, I got this. I got this figured out. I can do this,’ Morris said. “(Boyd) knew he could do it, but it all just came into shape where, it’s on me now. And you saw it.”
When it’s suggested to Boyd that he didn’t truly shine as Morris’ prime pupil until his 27th college start, Boyd respectfully begs to differ.
“I’ve been pretty confident in myself for a while now,” Boyd said, smiling.
On some level, Boyd always knew this connection with Morris — which powered the 2012 Tigers’ offense to 101 school records — was destined to click.
He made himself believe in Morris before Morris ever put on a Clemson visor. And now the pair looks to thrill Clemson fans for a third straight year, when it looked all along it might have only been two.
‘Give this guy a chance’
Shortly after New Year’s Day 2011, offensive coordinator Billy Napier, one of Boyd’s prime recruiters along with Pearman, was ousted. Boyd was slated to lead the offense as a redshirt sophomore the upcoming fall.
“He was concerned with who was going to be his next coach at Clemson, seeing some of the names that came across the screen,” said Tajh’s mom, Carla Boyd.
Yet Boyd was asked to be part of the interview committee, when head coach Dabo Swinney introduced Boyd to an offensive coordinator from Tulsa who trailed Boyd 2-1 in years of experience in college football.
Morris had overseen an offense scoring 41.4 points per game in 2010, eighth in the country, to help Tulsa double its win total to 10. For the 16 years before that, he won 82 percent of his games as a high school coach in his native Texas.
“It seemed like he was willing to groom Tajh,” Carla Boyd said. “Tajh had a good rapport with (then-Oregon coach) Chip Kelly during recruiting, and Tajh said, ‘Boy, he reminds me so much of Chip Kelly.’ So Tajh instantly liked him.”
Swinney had Boyd call Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a fellow Elite 11 alum who played for Morris at Lake Travis High School.
Gilbert’s message was, simply, “Give this guy a chance.” Sound, relevant advice.
“I didn’t know anything about him, honestly,” Boyd said. “There were a lot of question marks with him coming from Conference USA to the ACC — like, that stuff won’t work here. But it’s all about buying into the system.”
That system was predicated on moving as fast as humanly possible. The same week Auburn won a national championship with Cam Newton and hurry-up-no-huddle offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Morris was hired to usher in a new age at Clemson.
“Tajh was like a sponge — he was so hungry to learn when I got here,” Morris said. “He had just experienced a portion of that 6-7 season. He was wanting a breath of fresh air of something.”
Captaining an offense cranked into fifth gear, Boyd came just three snaps away from logging 1,000 plays during Clemson’s 2011 ACC championship run, featuring Boyd’s first-team all-ACC selection thanks to a school-record 38 total touchdowns.
But the good vibes fell apart in the Orange Bowl, dismantled 70-33 by West Virginia. Even though it was a time for transition on defense, Morris and Boyd assumed responsibility and went back to work.
“The best thing about him: he challenges me. He doesn’t let me get complacent,” Boyd said. “He’ll coach me harder than anybody I know. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
One time entering his junior year during the spring of 2012, Boyd wasn’t playing his best in practice, and Morris benched him for two series.
“It hurt my pride, man. I was so mad. I almost had tears coming out,” Boyd said. “But at the same time, it made me a better player.
“This was coming off a 3,800-yard passing season. But that stuff doesn’t really matter, because if you’re not coachable, you can’t work within the system.”
Boyd upped his touchdown tally by eight scores and total offense by nearly 400 yards in 2012, becoming the first Clemson quarterback to win ACC player of the year honors since Steve Fuller went back-to-back in 1977-78.
Certainly, NFL riches beckoned. His draft grade hovered around the third round, which could be bolstered with a great senior year, but also flattened with a dropoff — a risk-reward proposition.
Meanwhile, Morris found himself one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the country … merely three years after leaving the high school ranks.
Reports flew around — Texas Tech, Auburn, South Florida and North Carolina State were rumored to have interest in Morris. One person close to Boyd believes the quarterback was in “if he goes, I go” mode.
The hot stove cooled down, and Morris was still bouncing around the Clemson complex. Boyd announced his return Jan. 9, nearly two years to the day after meeting an unknown brilliant mind from Tulsa.
“This will be my fifth year, and it comes down to five months,” Boyd said. “So for me, it’s all about embracing every opportunity. Every practice, every workout, every time we step on that field, I’m trying to be the best player I possibly can be, trying to be the best leader I possibly can be.”
Two heads, one mind
This is definitely Boyd’s last fall in Clemson. If he fulfills his potential, it might be Morris’ too, meaning the record-setting Tigers will enjoy every moment they can.
“When you’ve got an offensive coordinator and a quarterback on the same page, hey, anything can happen,” senior tailback Roderick McDowell said. “It’s like they’re in each other’s head.”
“He knows my personality, I know his personality. He and I think a lot alike in certain situations,” Morris said. “Those are things you can’t coach. You develop and earn it with time. It’s kind of an earned relationship. I fully expect us to even be better.”
Morris has made good on his promise to coach Boyd harder than he’s ever been coached before, drilling his footwork, blitz and coverage recognitions, and his footwork again for good measure. (Morris constantly preaches the tool.)
“I think you see when the game’s on the line, he wants the ball in his hand,” Morris said. “Any great quarterback that has left their legacy has always had that said (about him). And Tajh is no different.
“And guess what? This year, we’re going to put the ball in his hand, a whole bunch,” Morris continued. “I expect him to have not just a great year. He’s going to have an unbelievable year because he gets it, and he understands more about how to manage the game than ever before.”
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