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Clemson offense gets back to basics

3/31/2015

It's a spring filled with changes for Clemson's offense. From the new-look line to the first-year coordinators to the bevy of early enrollees and the backup quarterback taking first-team reps while Deshaun Watson's knee heals, it makes sense the Tigers have dialed back the complexity while everyone gets acclimated. But the back-to-basics approach this spring isn't so much a necessity as it is a new mantra for 2015.

When coordinator Chad Morris left to take the head job at SMU in December, the men who inherited his playbook were left with a lot of information to parse. The approach they took this offseason has been a philosophy of less is more.

"Tony and I used February and March getting ready for spring ball do to some spring cleaning," said Jeff Scott, who was promoted along with Tony Elliott to run the Tigers' offense this season. "To really go back and study that and push aside some of the fluff stuff that we've added that maybe we didn't need, and get back to the basics and build it within the same offense we've had."

Scott and Elliot have routinely said they're not interested in reinventing the wheel for Clemson. With Watson already an advanced student of Morris' playbook, making any significant changes would've been a step back for the team's star quarterback.

But while the new coordinators aren't looking to rewrite the playbook, they are looking to pare it down a bit.

After four years at the helm, Morris had accumulated a massive stockpile of plays, and while that epic playbook worked wonders for the up-tempo offense during his first three seasons, the offense slowed significantly last season as the established stars of Morris' early years were replaced by new faces.

That trend might've continued this season with so many younger players in key roles, but Scott sees a chance this spring for the offense to instead nail down every detail of a core set of plays while setting aside the fringes of the playbook.

"I don't think we're going to add a lot of stuff this season," guard Eric MacLain said. "We're doing really well at the things we put in. It's a limited amount compared to what we've done in the past, but we're good at it. You don't need 100 plays in the playbook."

Instead, the plan is to have a smaller set of core plays with a wide variety of ways to disguise what's coming. The idea is that all the pre-snap shifts keep defenses guessing but give the younger players on offense ample time to get things right.

"We might not have put a ton of plays in, but we've put in a ton of formations, different looks, motions," MacLain said. "And guys can handle that. It's pre-snap stuff, and we can slow it down a little bit to get them set up with the same plays."

Even with backup quarterback Nick Schuessler running the offense this spring, things have moved relatively smoothly. He's shown a strong handle on what Scott and Elliot want to do offensively, so his focus has been more on handling the huddle than reading the defense and memorizing the playbook.

"They wanted to see me take a step out of my shell as far as a leadership role — being more vocal and taking responsibility," Schuessler said. "I always prepared like I was the starter mentally, knowing the system and preparing for opponents."

Obviously the tempo and technicalities will pick up once fall camp begins, but this back-to-basics approach isn't a springtime shortcut. It's a battle plan moving forward, and one Scott said would've been in the works even if Morris had stuck around.

And that's the real takeaway, Scott said. This is still Morris' offense -- but more of a "Greatest Hits" version of the playbook he spent four years installing.

"We're taking this as an opportunity to start at the ground level and build it back up," Scott said. "There's different wrinkles and different ways you can find to do things in a better way, but we're not looking to make any major schematic changes. The founding principles of the offense will be the same."