CLEMSON - Chad Morris loves Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins and their long-gone Clemson classmates. He always has, and always will.
Nothing will stop him from fiercely defending the Tigers tasked with replacing those All-Americans on offense.
"Nobody cares to know who they are right now, except for their parents and grandparents and all their relatives. They're a no-name bunch, as opposed to last year," Morris told reporters Saturday, almost snarling the words.
"That's great. I told them over there, you've got to go earn respect and you've got to ... have that ticked-off approach that when you step on the field, you're going to prove people wrong that are saying we can't do much."
Clemson is ranked No. 16 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll, and was the near-consensus pick to finish second in the ACC Atlantic Division behind the defending national champion, loaded Florida State. Those are hardly disrespectful projections.
"You know, people can think that all they want," junior center Ryan Norton said. "We need to go out there and prove it ourselves. I think people will be a little surprised by how this offense is."
Morris, the fourth-year offensive coordinator, and Brent Venables, the third-year defensive coordinator, have led the charge screaming "nobody believes in us," the reigning Orange Bowl champion with a top-10 finish in each of the last two postseason coaches polls.
"Apparently people on the outside don't think a whole lot of us as a team," Venables said. "I think a lot of people don't think we're a top-25 team. And that's fine. But that's an indictment on, we lost two guys and that's our whole team."
Boyd and Watkins obviously were key contributors to Clemson's 32-8 mark the past three years. A new starting quarterback, running back and wide receiver corps, combined with Clemson's lack of previous track record as a dominant defense, have evidently led to enough outside doubt to ruffle Morris' and Venables' feathers.
"I'm fired up every year, but I'm really excited this year," Morris said. "For one, people aren't giving us credit. And I love being the underdog in that regard. It ticks me off in that regard. But that's OK. Kind of a little extra motivation for us."
Defensive linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett and linebacker Stephone Anthony are on numerous preseason watch lists, so Clemson has a good shot on paper to morph into a top-20 national defense.
"Last year we felt like we were a pretty strong unit as well," Jarrett said. "We're just trying to build off a good year last year with everybody trying to get better as a whole entire unit."
Still, since Boyd and Watkins no longer capture the national headlines, in Venables' view, Clemson is further off the radar than, say, last year's preseason No. 8 ranking.
"They're questioning everybody else, and they don't think much of them," Venables said. "Whether we're talking about within our own conference, or talking about our secondary, we're way on down the totem pole as a program, apparently. We've got to earn our respect."
The emotion is rubbing off on the assistants working for Morris and Venables, who each project as potential head coaches in the making.
"I kind of like it. I'm liking where we're sitting," defensive line coach Marion Hobby said. "We lost some talented players, some great leadership. But we got a talented team, and everybody's looking for their team."
It was mentioned to running backs coach Tony Elliott that Clemson had become somewhat of a dark horse entering 2014. A fourth-year assistant like the rest of the offensive staff, Elliott replied, "Just like when we came in."
"It's kind of refreshing because you lose Tajh, you lose Sammy, you lose Hot Rod (McDowell,) you lose all these guys that have played for you for several years," Elliott said. "Now it's almost like Year 1 again, even though it's Year 4, because you have so many unknowns. So there's a lot there to help us stay hungry."
As the opener approaches within less than three weeks, Venables challenges the Tigers to stay hungry every day of fall camp, since they've got massive matchups at Georgia and Florida State in the season's first 22 days. It's not just about perfect attendance; it's about making the most of their preparation.
"The message to our guys is, don't confuse the busy-ness with work," Venables said. "Yeah, you're showing up every day, but are you beating Georgia every day? Are you beating Florida State? Are you taking South Carolina State for granted? Don't say, I was at every workout this summer; yeah, but I watched the workout and you didn't work.
"It's hard to be at your best every day, but did you wear out the competition? That's the mark of a player, of a unit, of a program, is guys buying into that."