NCF Nation: Chad Morris
MIAMI -- The night started appropriately enough: Clemson and Ohio State trading scores behind their terrifically talented dual-threat quarterbacks, almost daring each other with a game of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
It was Tajh Boyd first. Then Braxton Miller. Then Clemson jumped out to a big lead. Ohio State refused to bend. Then Ohio State jumped out to a big lead. Clemson refused to bend. Momentum shifted every few drives Friday night, swinging back and forth like a ticking grandfather clock, counting down to the final thrilling minutes.
Indeed, the Discover Orange Bowl fell right in line with every other BCS game to date, providing high drama with a lot of flair and a bit of the unexpected. Both programs needed a victory in the worst way to validate their performances in 2013, almost standing together like mirror images. No surprise then that Boyd and Miller began the game the way they did, considering they run offenses nearly identical to one another.
But where scheme is similar, players are not. Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins proved that over and over, thoroughly dominating a flummoxed and injury-depleted Buckeyes secondary in a 40-35 victory. Watkins finished with a school- and Orange Bowl-record 227 yards on a school- and Orange Bowl-record 16 receptions, scoring twice to take home game MVP honors.
Boyd had 505 yards of total offense and scored six touchdowns, ending his career with a triumphant victory he needed badly. But Watkins was the most brilliant player on the field throughout the night, showing off his superior speed at every turn.
“The biggest thing going into this game, we were going to win or lose going through No. 10 [Boyd] and No. 2 [Watkins],” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Miller, playing through severe pain, was not perfect. But he kept Ohio State in the contest, getting up after one huge sack followed another huge sack, gutting out a gritty performance. He led consecutive touchdown drives to close the first half, giving Ohio State a 22-20 lead at intermission.
“If you ask me how I felt at halftime, I felt fantastic,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Like we’re going to be in a great ballgame here.”
The Buckeyes built that lead to 29-20 after Carlos Hyde scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter. It seemed improbable, quite frankly, that an undermanned Ohio State team held the lead, considering it had yet to find a way to stop Watkins.
You wondered how long that lead would last.
Answer: Not long. But it was not solely because of Watkins.
Ohio State lost its poise.
The Buckeyes closed the game with turnovers on four of their final five possessions. The first two -- a fumbled punt by Philly Brown and a Miller interception -- were converted into touchdowns, giving Clemson the lead back. Miller hung tough, putting the Buckeyes back ahead 35-34 on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Hyde with 11:35 remaining in the fourth.
Even still, Clemson had all the momentum. Boyd led the game-winning drive with ease, throwing a perfectly called pass to tight end Stanton Seckinger with 6:16 remaining for the final margin. Miller fumbled and threw an interception on the final two possessions, and Clemson started throwing oranges all over the field.
In the end, it was Boyd who finished with more carries and more yards than Miller. Swinney admitted afterward that Clemson used more designed rushes for Boyd because he felt it gave the Tigers their best chance to run the ball. “A little bit of what they do,” Swinney said, in a nod to Ohio State.
While nobody on the Clemson side said the game plan was made specifically to take advantage of an Ohio State secondary missing starting cornerback Bradley Roby and starting two freshmen, the results on the field spoke for the Tigers.
“We saw the young cornerback out there and how far he was off us,” Watkins said. “The wide receivers and tight ends did a great job of blocking downfield, and coach did a great job of just coming back to the same thing and giving us success.”
While it is true both teams needed a win in the worst way, one could argue Clemson needed it much more. This is a program that has fought for respect for years now, still trying to erase the horror that was the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle, a game Swinney has repeatedly called a “butt whipping.” Boyd and Watkins were in that game, rendered ineffective because an avalanche of turnovers essentially limited what they could do against West Virginia.
But that was their first year playing under offensive coordinator Chad Morris. That was their first time playing in a BCS game, youngsters on a team full of them. Thanks in large part to that loss and more recent defeats to Florida State and South Carolina, there might not be a team in the country ridiculed more than Clemson given where this program stands today: back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history.
All behind a record-setting quarterback and a dynamic receiver destined to become a first-round NFL pick.
“The significance of this game, not for me particularly, not for this team particularly, but for the university, for the fans that support us, has been unbelievable,” Boyd said. “I couldn’t pick a better way to go out as a senior.”
Or for Clemson to close out 2013.
But Meyer said later on Monday that “there was no truth” to the rumors he’d offered Morris the job and claimed to not have any idea where those reports came from.
“I’m going to have to ask Chad: ‘Did you start that?’” Meyer joked.
Whatever the case, this much is true: Meyer and the third-year Clemson play-caller share a mutual admiration. And when their teams face one another in Friday’s Discover Orange Bowl, you’ll see a lot of similarities in the two offenses.
Morris was still a high school coach in Texas when he got to know Meyer. The relationship started when Meyer recruited some of Morris’ players while at Utah. When Meyer went to Florida, Morris took his high school coaching staff to Gainesville one offseason to gather information about the spread offense.
During Meyer’s year off from coaching in 2011, he called a handful of Clemson games as an ESPN analyst. Meyer wisely used his time off to learn from other coaches, including Morris.
“You know Coach Meyer,” Morris said. “He’s definitely always looking to try to find something that separates him offensively. He’s an offensive mind. So he would come out and watch our practice. After practice, we’d sit and talk for a while.”
Morris said he and Meyer struck up a conversation once about how Clemson was using tight end Dwayne Allen. That led to near-weekly talks on the phone about a tight end’s role in the offense.
“I remember watching the transformation from the previous offense to his [at Clemson],” Meyer said. “It was almost overnight. They were doing a great job.”
This past spring, two members of Ohio State offensive staff -- including the coordinator Meyer did hire, Tom Herman -- spent about three days visiting Clemson to exchange ideas. Herman, who spent several years coaching in Texas earlier in his career, knows Morris well.
“I wouldn't say we're best buddies,” Herman said. “We don't go on vacation together or anything like that, but we do spend a lot of time talking football over the phone. It has been a very good, productive working relationship.”
Both Herman and Morris have frequently been mentioned as future head coaches, and with the success of other former offensive coordinators like Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, it’s easy to see why. Of course, neither needs to settle for just any job. Morris is already being paid like a head coach. When a reporter started a question to Herman about both coordinators being on “the cutting edge” of offense, Herman cracked: “Him more than me, if you look at his paycheck.” (Herman makes $550,000 at Ohio State).
Morris said when he and Herman went to dinner in the offseason, they joked about potentially meeting up in a bowl game. And so it came to pass, as two teams that share a lot of offensive principles are about to find out which one works better.
Clemson averaged 40.2 points per game this season, while Ohio State scored 46.3 points per contest. The Buckeyes are a run-heavy team, while the Tigers tilt far more toward the passing game. That’s mostly because that’s where each team’s true strengths lie, as Clemson has Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, while Ohio State has Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.
But as far as formations, shifting, motions and tempo go, they’re a lot alike.
“We have a lot of common ground,” said Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warriner. “Especially in the spread things we do in the passing and running games.”
Morris said he didn’t give away all his secrets when Herman visited. In college football, many offenses use the same basic concepts.
“It's funny,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We say it all the time in our meeting. It's not just them. It's a lot of these offenses that you're seeing. You watch the 49ers with [Colin] Kaepernick. It's like all these boys went to the same retreat, the same clinic and they’re stealing ball plays from each other."
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And whether Meyer and Morris came close to working together or not, their offenses flatter each other.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is not afraid to make his feelings known. To some, this comes off as trash talk. To others, he is just being honest.
Simply put, Watkins does not hold back. So it should come as no surprise, then, that he told reporters after arriving for the Discover Orange Bowl, “I think I’m the best receiver in the nation. ... Overall I think I can’t be guarded. That’s just my mindset.”
That advantage seems to have grown even larger with news on Monday that Ohio State could be without starting cornerback Bradley Roby, rehabbing a knee injury. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell also confirmed the Buckeyes will start freshman Vonn Bell at nickel cornerback.
Three new starters could be in the Buckeyes secondary against the best receiver group they have faced to date, leaving observers to believe Watkins and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd are in line for a big day.
“I think our wide receiver group is top 5 in the country,” Watkins said Monday. “We've been playing good all year, not just catching the ball but blocking, taking care of the little things. We definitely have to come out and put on a show. Their defense is pretty good, but for our offense and wide receivers, we've got a better wide receiver corps than they've ever faced in their conference and we've definitely got to show it when we play them.”
Watkins has shown it all season long, rebounding from a down year in 2012 to have one of the best seasons in the country with 85 receptions for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns, leading the team in receiving yards, receptions, touchdowns, kickoff return yards and all-purpose yards.
Martavis Bryant ranks second on the team with 800 yards receiving and has shown flashes of brilliance. Their size alone -- Watkins is 6-1, Bryant is 6-5 – gives Clemson a huge edge. Fickell said of the receiver group, “The combination of size and speed is something that's really intriguing.”
Add in what has happened the last two weeks to the Buckeyes’ secondary. Ohio State gave up 451 yards in the air to Michigan -- the Wolverines’ second-highest total on the season -- and then 304 yards passing to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. That ranks as the highest passing total for the Spartans since their quarterbacks threw for 322 yards Sept. 8, 2012, in a blowout win over Central Michigan.
Ohio State ranks No. 103 in the nation in average passing yards allowed (259.5 ypg).
It’s easy to see why Clemson is penciled in to have the edge in the matchup.
“I don't think there's a lack of confidence from our DBs. We believe in ourselves,” Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett said. “But this is a chance to prove to the doubters -- a lot of doubters -- that we can play well and I think we have to go out there and prove it.”
Despite what seems to be an edge on paper, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not one of those doubters. After practice Monday, he downplayed the potential matchup advantage, saying, “People look at things like that statistically and say they're 100th or whatever in pass defense and you immediately say, hey, that's a great advantage. Well, we look at things a little bit differently. We take the curtain back and we see they've had some inconsistency at times, some mistakes and busts which have led to some things but also one of the things is people having to throw the ball because they can't run it.”
Ohio State ranks No. 6 in the nation in rush defense, but if the Tigers can have success passing the ball the way Michigan and Michigan State did, the run element might not matter. Plus, Watkins has vowed to have the best game of his season, in what most likely is his final game for the Tigers.
Though he says he will not make any announcements until after the bowl game, the junior is the highest-rated receiver on the board for the 2014 draft. Still, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has done his best to pitch Watkins on the benefits of staying. Namely: seniors get to travel first class on team flights.
“I reminded him of that this week as we got on the plane,” Morris said. “I said, ‘Just think, next year, when you get on a plane, you'll be able to sit in first class.’ Like he always does, he grins ear to ear. He's had a great career, and whatever his decision is, we're going to support him.”
Perhaps one final career game in an outstanding career awaits.
“I can’t wait to see him,” whispered Tyler Englehart, an awestruck freshman, to nobody in particular.
“Tajh is our Superman,” running back Roderick McDowell said.
“Tajh is the best football player on this team, in this conference, in the nation,” added defensive end Corey Crawford.
Perhaps the most awestruck fans of Boyd are the ones who practice with him every day.
Clemson’s win over Georgia legitimized the Tigers as a national title contender, and further boosted Boyd’s résumé as a Heisman hopeful. He finished with 312 yards of total offense, a school record for a season opener, and now has 22 wins as a starter -- tied for fourth most in school history. For just the third time in his career, Boyd finished with multiple rushing touchdowns. He also helped deliver one of the biggest wins in school history on the biggest stage.
“His leadership and how he brought us together at the end of the game, we thrived off him,” wide receiver Sammy Watkins said. “With him getting first downs, and him getting the ball out of his hands on the edge, and us blocking, he made us good tonight.”
That’s exactly why Boyd came back, instead of leaving early for the NFL.
He came back to run down The Hill before what was the largest, most raucous home crowd he had ever seen.
He came back to experience the “surreal” moment of walking through a horde of fans in the team’s pregame “Tiger Walk.”
He came back to compete for a national title.
“He’s a baller,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “There’s no question about what Tajh Boyd means to this program, to this university and to college football. To go against the opponents he’s gone against the last two games and two control the games in a manner in which he did, it says a lot about him.”
Neither team’s defense played particularly well early in the game, and Clemson was outgained in total yardage, but Boyd made more clutch plays and was able to stay on his feet while Georgia’s Aaron Murray was sacked four times. This game was billed as featuring two of the best quarterbacks in the country. It did, but Murray had a fumble and an interception, both in the second quarter. His critics will likely continue to point to his 3-11 record against teams that have finished in the Associated Press Top 25.
Meanwhile, Boyd has now led Clemson to back-to-back wins against SEC teams.
“He played like a veteran quarterback is supposed to play,” Morris said. “We had a couple of drops tonight, and they very well could have led to some more scores. He never rattled, he never shoot, and his ability to run the football tonight made us successful.”
Boyd’s 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave Clemson the early 7-0 lead, and his 77-yard pass later in the quarter to Watkins put the Tigers up 14-7. Boyd always seemed to find an answer in what was a thrilling, electric, back-and-forth game that lived up to every bit of the hype. In the third quarter, he found Zac Brooks for a 31-yard touchdown pass, and threw the game winner to Stanton Seckinger in the fourth quarter.
“I think it turned a lot of heads in the college football world,” Boyd said of the win. “It was a very monumental win for the university and program and conference in general. All that good stuff is great, but we have to keep working to keep and keep our eyes on the prize. This is only the opener. We have 11 games left. We have to continue to keep working.”
Clemson fans had to wait to see Boyd in the Tiger Walk, but he didn’t waste any time making his statement against Georgia.
But his head coach at Edgewood High in Texas, well, he didn’t believe in throwing the football. It was the 1980s, and running the ball was all the rage. So Edgewood muddled through some mediocre seasons, Morris handcuffed from doing do the one thing he desperately wanted to do.
Until the final game of the season one year. Edgewood was playing its county rivals, and Morris decided to audible to a pass play. It worked. Edgewood scored. Morris went back to the bench, knowing his head coach would be unhappy.
But his position coach, Jack Shellnutt, always appreciated what Morris did in that game. That memory, from some 25 years ago, remains to this day. Perhaps it is because that play ended up foreshadowing what was to come. At least to Shellnutt, anyway.
Turns out, Morris’ teams have been good at it and so have his quarterbacks. Headed into this season, Clemson is expected to have one of the best passing offenses in the country behind one of the best quarterbacks in the country -- all with Morris orchestrating the moves as offensive coordinator.
And yet, Morris is going into just his fourth year on the collegiate level after an incredibly successful high school coaching career. His preps-to-college rise is just the latest we have seen recently, following two mentors -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
Graham and Malzahn also came from the high school ranks and became college head coaches after brief stints as coordinators (Graham spent five years as a coordinator; Malzahn six). Both Morris and Malzahn worked for Graham at Tulsa; Morris patterned his high school and NCAA offenses after what Malzahn did as a high school coach in Arkansas.
While Morris is not a head coach yet, most everybody believes that time will be here soon enough. Morris is not only the highest paid coordinator in the country -- he is the hottest coordinator in the country. After Clemson finished No. 9 in the nation in total offense, and Tajh Boyd won AFCA All-America honors last year, Morris drew interest from several programs with head coach vacancies.
But the timing was not right for Morris. The timing may never be right, he says.
“Clemson has made a huge commitment to where it’s going to take a very, very special opportunity to ever leave,” Morris says. “That says a lot about what we’re trying to build here. If that day comes, it’ll be great. It will be wonderful. If it doesn’t, it will be wonderful, too, because we’ve got something really special going here. As we sit here today, I don’t have any intentions of leaving. I didn’t have any intentions of leaving last year. But I think it also says something, that if you’re having the success we’re having, people are going to talk to you, and that’s a positive thing.”
Does he want to be a college head coach?
“I would love to,” Morris says. “Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not going to gauge whether or not my career is successful or not on if I am. If it happens, and it’s the right opportunity, then great. There’s such a thing as not being the right opportunity, not being the right time.”
Morris found a way to capitalize on the right opportunity in early 2010, even though at the time, he thought it might be the wrong opportunity. After winning two straight high school football championships at Lake Travis High in Texas, Graham called Morris and wondered whether he would be interested in the Tulsa offensive coordinator job.
Morris said no.
Graham called again.
Morris said no.
Graham called again.
Morris said no.
Graham called a fourth time. He asked Morris to come up to Tulsa with his wife so they could take a look around. Morris finally agreed to take the job, albeit reluctantly.
"“Even during that year, even with the success we were having, I just didn’t know if this is what I wanted to do,” Morris says. “I was pushed out of my comfort zone, which was good. It was the first time I ever worked for somebody. For 18 years I was my own boss. But I knew what a good assistant coach was because I had hired a bunch of them. The more we got into it, I thought, ‘This is it. We loved it.’ ”
I would love to [be a college head coach]. Don't get me wrong. But I'm not going to gauge whether or not my career is successful or not on if I am. If it happens, and it's the right opportunity, then great. There's such a thing as not being the right opportunity, not being the right time." -- Clemson Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris
Tulsa finished that season ranked No. 5 in the nation in total offense. In South Carolina, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney noticed. After deciding to make a change at offensive coordinator, he decided he wanted his offense to be more like Morris’.
The two did not know each other, but Morris made Swinney’s list of five finalists. Swinney started making some calls and doing his homework. He brought Morris in for an interview, and the two hit it off. Morris, with only one year as a collegiate coordinator, was hired.
“He did an awesome job on his interview,” Swinney recalls. “It’s easy now to look back, but at the time I had gotten more hate mail on that hire. People were just glad I hired him because they couldn’t wait for me to be gone in six months. I really lost my mind now because I didn’t hire this guy, this guy or this guy.
“At the end of the day, you have to do what you believe in because ultimately, you’re the one who’s going to be held accountable. If it doesn’t work, I have nobody to blame but myself. It was a big decision but I had no doubt. I was 100 percent.”
Swinney clearly made the right call. He might lose Morris sooner than anticipated. But that is for another day. Today, and for the rest of the season, Morris is here to make the Clemson offense even better than it has been the last two seasons.
One thing has changed since high school: Morris gets to throw the ball whenever he wants.
“We are two-for-two in recent injuries that could have been serious,” coach Dabo Swinney said in a prepared statement. “T.J. Green had a knee injury last week that did not end up being serious, and now Jordan Leggett. We are fortunate that we will have Jordan back early in the season.”
Leggett was definitely a first-year player to watch in the ACC. He had a great spring and a chance at a starting role.
The tight end position has been a big part of the Clemson offense the past two seasons under offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Clemson tight ends have caught 119 passes for 1,390 yards and 21 touchdowns over the past two seasons, significantly contributing to Clemson’s 21-6 record. Clemson has had the first-team All-ACC tight end each of the past two years -- Dwayne Allen in 2011 and Brandon Ford in 2012.
No. 1: Can Clemson win a national title?
It’s been a long time since expectations were so high at Clemson, and certainly the highest they’ve been under coach Dabo Swinney. Much of it has to do with three key components: The return of offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Heisman hopeful quarterback Tajh Boyd, and standout receiver Sammy Watkins. With four starters returning on the offensive line, Clemson should again be putting up eye-popping numbers, but will the defensive line be able to stop anyone? You can’t spell Doubt without the Tigers’ D, and it’s the biggest reason to hesitate when deeming Clemson national championship material. It should be better, though, in the second season under Brent Venables. It has to be elite, though, to handle the gauntlet that includes Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina. The good news is that nobody should be questioning Clemson’s schedule strength. The bad news? The Tigers have to be even stronger to survive it.
- No. 10: Can Duke get back to a bowl game?
- No. 9: Can UNC earn a real ring?
- No. 8: How will the new quarterbacks fare?
- No. 7: Can the ACC match its off-field success on the field this fall?
- No. 6: How will Pitt and Cuse factor into the race?
- No. 5: How will three new head coaches fare?
- No. 4: What is happening at Miami?
- No. 3: Will Virginia Tech rebound?
- No. 2: Can Florida State reload?
"That's when you'd find out who is passionate," said Graham, now in his second season as ASU's head coach. "If you want to have a beer, I'll have a beer with you. But be ready to talk some football. The guys that came out afterwards and wanted to learn and wanted to talk, those are the guys I that I knew had a passion for this game. Those are the guys I kept my eyes on."
And it's pretty clear that Graham has an eye for coaching talent. In just his eighth year as a head coach, he's given rise to an impressive coaching tree that includes several of college football's most well-known coaches and coordinators.
- Gus Malzahn: The head coach at Auburn (formerly the head coach at Arkansas State) won a national championship with the Tigers as their offensive coordinator. Before that, he was Graham's coordinator at Tulsa.
- Chad Morris: The offensive coordinator at Clemson had zero college experience before Graham hired him.
- Bill Blankenship: The head coach at Tulsa had zero college experience when Graham hired him at Tulsa to be a receivers coach.
- Keith Patterson: West Virginia's defensive coordinator was a graduate assistant for one year but worked with Graham at Allen High School in Texas before Graham brought him to Tulsa.
- David Beaty: Texas A&M's receivers coach had zero college experience when Graham hired him at Rice.
- Major Applewhite: The Texas co-offensive coordinator had one season as a quarterbacks coach at Syracuse when Graham hired him at Rice.
"Teachers," Graham said. "All of them are outstanding teachers who just needed the opportunity. Chad turned me down three times because he didn't think he could do it. Now he's the highest paid offensive coordinator in the country after four years. I got hammered in the media when I hired Chad Morris. They said 'How can you hire someone without any college experience.' Same with Bill. Same with David at Rice."
And Graham already has his eye on the next up-and-comer. It's his current offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell, who reportedly passed on the same job at Auburn to stay with Graham. It's not every day a guy turns down a coordinator gig in the SEC. Norvell has his reasons.
"He's someone you want to believe in," Norvell said of working for Graham. "He's been a great mentor and someone I've learned a ton from. When you look at his coaching tree, the guys he's helped in such a short amount of time is really impressive."
Graham said Norvell might be the brightest of the bunch, and it's going to be a struggle to keep him around.
That's the fun thing about coaching trees. You could actually trace Graham's origins to the coach of ASU's biggest rival -- Arizona's Rich Rodriguez. It was RichRod who gave Graham his first Division I college coaching job at West Virginia. Other trees have multiple branches. Stanford's David Shaw comes from the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree -- but his roots are inspired by Bill Walsh, Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. Sonny Dykes comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree. Others have bounced around and taken bits and pieces from various coaches.
But one thing they all have in common is that someone gave them their first opportunity. And so far Graham has been pretty good at spotting guys ready for their opportunity.
"I've been fortunate to identify some great teachers," he said. "I get credit when things go well and I take heat when things go wrong. But the most important thing is those nine guys I hire. I spend more time with those nine guys. I want the best pay and the best contracts for them. We want to be conference champions and Rose Bowl champions and national champions. To do that, we have to keep a staff together and that's a challenge."
In his first year at ASU, the fruits of his teachings were obvious. The Sun Devils went 8-5 and many have them as the favorites to win the Pac-12 South this season. One particular point of pride for Graham was ASU's reduction in penalties. They went from being one of the most penalized teams in the country to the least penalized team in the league.
"People think it's because I'm a hardcore disciplinarian," Graham said. "It's because we are teachers. We taught them the rules."
It is obviously a transition to go from being a high school coach to a college coach. The schemes are more complex. There are different social issues with the players -- many of whom are away from home for the first time. But if you can teach, Graham will give you a look.
"We're adaptive," he said. "When you coach in high school you have to learn how to teach fundamentals and develop fundamentals. But you have to be adaptive to the skills and talents of the players that you have year in and year out. That's what's served me and those guys well."
Now it’s our turn.
We’re looking today specifically at the ACC and which teams in the conference are best built to last over the next three years. (Maryland isn't included because it's leaving for the Big Ten next year and, well, this is the future.) Taking into consideration factors like coaching, recruiting and overall program stability, here’s a look at how the ACC might shape up three years from now:
1. Florida State. The recruiting is on par with the SEC, but the coaching staff remains unproven, as there will be seven new assistants this fall. The Noles have yet to truly separate themselves from the rest of the league, and it will only get more difficult with the addition of Louisville to the Atlantic Division.
2. Clemson. The Tigers might not be able to hang on to offensive coordinator Chad Morris, but coach Dabo Swinney has already proved he can make great hires. The staff continues to lure in elite talent, including No. 1-ranked dual-threat QB Deshaun Watson.
3. Miami. Al Golden has already made the Canes a contender again, and he’s done it in the face of self-imposed scholarship reductions. It doesn’t appear he’s going anywhere any time soon, and despite the possibility of more sanctions looming, there is a sense of strong leadership and stability within the program.
4. North Carolina. Larry Fedora has been a difference-maker already, and the staff has recruited well despite the NCAA sanctions. The Tar Heels are working on their second straight top-25 class under Fedora.
5. Louisville. As long as Charlie Strong sticks around, the program can continue to build upon last year’s success, but it will face a more challenging road in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Cards currently have the No. 20 recruiting class in the nation, and that could improve with more exposure in the ACC.
6. Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer is one of the best coaches in the ACC, but how much longer will he stick around? There are quarterback questions after Logan Thomas graduates, but the staff currently has the No. 23 class in the country.
7. Georgia Tech. The Jackets are good enough to contend for the Coastal Division every year under Paul Johnson, but with Miami and UNC on the rise, they can’t miss a step in recruiting to stay in the race.
8. NC State. Dave Doeren has some of the best facilities in the ACC, an energetic, young coaching staff to recruit with, and a clean slate. He also has the tall task of closing the gap with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville.
9. Pittsburgh. Paul Chryst has brought some much-needed stability to the program, but the recruiting has yet to crack the class rankings. His first class was a strong effort in the trenches, though, and that should eventually pay off. There should be plenty of talent to choose from between Ohio and Pennsylvania alone.
10. Wake Forest. The Deacs have been extremely pleased with their recruiting efforts over the past two classes, and the future looks bright in Winston-Salem. The only problem is they’re stuck in the same division as FSU, Clemson and Louisville.
11. Virginia. Mike London has proved he can win, as he was named the ACC’s Coach of the Year in 2011 after an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but the Cavaliers took a step back in 2012. If Virginia can find an answer at quarterback -- one that will last a few years -- there’s no reason the Hoos can’t move up the list.
12. Syracuse. Scott Shafer has taken over, and recruiting should be his priority, as the Orange haven’t even been on the rankings radar recently. It's going to take some work to close the gap with the rest of the division.
13. Boston College. Steve Addazio has already injected much-needed enthusiasm into the program, and the staff has recruited well. The challenge now is to continue to recruit at that frenzied pace for three more years.
14. Duke. The Blue Devils got over the hump with their first bowl appearance since 1994, but is it possible to recruit well enough in Durham to make that a regular occurrence? The staff has upgraded the talent under David Cutcliffe, but Duke has to win more than three conference games to gain more credibility in the league race.
The Noles had a veteran quarterback in EJ Manuel. They had defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, one of the best assistants in the country, leading what was an NFL-bound defensive line. All of the pieces seemed to be in place for FSU to make a run at the national title. Just one year later, the pieces look more like a giant puzzle.
This year, Clemson is the ACC’s team built to succeed now -- and once again, it’s a small window of opportunity.
This is the last season for quarterback Tajh Boyd, whose decision to return to school instead of leaving early for the NFL draft can’t be understated. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris is a hot commodity these days when it comes to coaching searches. And should receiver Sammy Watkins decide to leave early for the NFL draft, the three stars on Clemson’s offense will no longer be aligned. This year, though, the Tigers have four starters returning on the offensive line to pave the way to another record-setting season.
Coach Dabo Swinney has had his eye on the 2013 season for more than a year now, well aware of the potential that was brewing in Death Valley. This is the final layer of his construction project. He's entering his fifth season -- he's had plenty of time to recruit his players, install his system and make his hires. It's completely his program now, and this year should reflect its ceiling. With a win over Georgia in the season opener, the Tigers should be a top-5 team. There is no doubting the strength of schedule this season, or the possibility of Boyd as a Heisman hopeful. The defense should also be better in the second season under coordinator Brent Venables.
The Tigers have momentum from the Chick-fil-A Bowl win against LSU, which capped an 11-2 season. They have the coaching staff. They have the talent. What they don’t have is a lot of time.
He ranked the Hokies ahead of Clemson in his 2013 Top 40 Countdown, with Virginia Tech at No. 12 and Clemson at No. 15.
Oh, and he has Florida State as the No. 3 team in the nation.
No. 3 team in the nation?! FSU might not even be the best team in the ACC.
Steele clearly has a lot of faith in Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, but he has to have even more faith in the Hokies' offensive line and new coordinator, Scot Loeffler.
I'm not sure even Virginia Tech fans have that much confidence right now -- especially after such an abysmal showing in the spring game.
Based on what we saw this spring, Virginia Tech doesn't even look like the best team in the Coastal Division -- Miami does. There are reasons to believe, though, in Blacksburg. Bud Foster's defense could be the best in the ACC this fall, the schedule is conducive to a season of redemption, and those within the program are determined not to repeat last year's mistakes. Virginia Tech should start out no worse than 3-1, with its lone loss to defending national champ Alabama.
But can the Hokies win at Georgia Tech on a Thursday night? Can they beat UNC? Pitt? Win at Miami? There are no gimmes. Virginia Tech -- with the exception of one practice and the spring game -- had a terrific spring and made many strides the public did not see. The Hokies will be better, but they still have young receivers and plenty of questions offensively.
Florida State should again be a contender in the Atlantic Division, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see the Noles in the ACC title game again -- they should be playing for a title every year with the way Jimbo Fisher is recruiting.
But Clemson is in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, while FSU is breaking in a new coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt. Florida State has a new quarterback in Jameis Winston (though he hasn't been officially named the starter yet), whose legend is far longer than his playing time, while Clemson has a Heisman candidate in Tajh Boyd. Clemson also has one of the country's rising star assistants in offensive coordinator Chad Morris, while Florida State doesn't even have an offensive coordinator.
Florida State, though, beat Clemson last year and is good enough to do it again. Virginia Tech definitely has more to prove than the Noles, but until the ACC finds a team that can win big consistently, it doesn't have a top 5 team.
ESPN Insider Travis Haney weighs in with his thoughts on that topic in a new piece, noting two key areas the Tigers must address to get there. He writes:
For one, the Tigers' yards-per-rush number -- 4.2, 69th in FBS -- was low. And that was with veteran back Andre Ellington and quarterback Tajh Boyd developing a run element to his game. ...
Secondly, coordinator Brent Venables' defense needs to continue its upward trend. Through the first six games in 2012, the Tigers were 112th out of 120 FBS teams in yards per play allowed (6.56). In the final seven games, however, the Tigers were 22nd in the country (4.91), demonstrating marked improvement under the first-year coordinator.
Haney spent time in Clemson visiting with Dabo Swinney, Chad Morris and Brent Venables for the story and has plenty of good notes in there. It is an Insider piece and you can check it out here .
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson running back Roderick McDowell has a favorite word.
It is a blessing he is even able to play football, after being born with clubfoot, a congenital birth defect that impacts the way people walk and run.
It is a blessing he is still at Clemson, after he thought about quitting.
It is a blessing he is now getting an opportunity to start for the Tigers, poised to replace Andre Ellington as the next 1,000-yard rusher at the school.
Have there been frustrations? Yes. Rocky patches? Absolutely. Down moments? Without a doubt. But McDowell says he always kept his faith that everything would work out for him.
"My coaches always tell me a hungry dog fights and me having that fight in me, that’s what keeps me going," McDowell said. "I had plenty of opportunities to leave but I decided to stay. And look where I am now. God blessed me with the opportunity to be in a position where I can be a top running back at a top program. Having Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins and a great offensive line and stuff like that to keep me motivated and keep me pushing -- what more can I ask for?"
In seventh grade, he started playing football. Not surprisingly, he was faster than everybody on that field, too. McDowell quickly became one of the top prospects in the state and settled on Clemson, a choice that left others scratching their heads.
"When I first got here, everybody was like, 'Why do you want to come here? They have C.J. Spiller, they have Jamie Harper, they have Andre Ellington,'" McDowell said. "In my mind, I was like if you want to be the best you have to surround yourself with the best so that’s what I did. I got a chance to compete, and now I got a chance to be that top running back and carry on the legacy of being a 1,000-yard rusher."
There is no question running back is a position in the spotlight with Ellington gone. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris does not expect to rely exclusively on McDowell the way he did on Ellington the past several seasons. Instead, the Tigers are going to go with a running-back-by-committee approach, relying on McDowell, D.J. Howard, Zac Brooks and perhaps some incoming freshmen.
The goal is to average more than 225 yards rushing on the ground per game.
"All those guys are going to have to pull their weight," Morris said.
McDowell is fine with that.
"Even though I’m a senior I’m not entitled to anything," McDowell said. "My mindset is I need D.J. and D.J. needs me. Me and D.J. go out there and compete our butts off. This offense is not based off a one-back system. Andre was successful because he had me and D.J. pushing him. There’s always a rotation so that’s how I feel about the competition this spring."
And how does he describe the waiting game he has played the past four years?
"A blessing," McDowell said. "People are thinking me waiting was a bad thing but look at me now. I’ve experienced a lot but I’m in a position that I can show people I’m still here. Roderick McDowell is going to carry the load. I’m going to make sure you all know who I am. So it’s been a blessing for me."
When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3)
What to watch:
- Quarterbacks of the future. You know Tajh Boyd is good. Expect Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly to take most of the snaps. Boyd played just four snaps in the last scrimmage. Let's see his backups.
- The tight ends. Clemson tight ends Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford have been the first team All-ACC tight ends the past two years. Clemson tight ends have 118 receptions and 21 touchdowns the past two years, perhaps the most underrated area in Chad Morris’ offense. So who moves in there this year? Sam Cooper is the most experienced, but freshman Jordan Leggett has been impressive this spring.
- How much better is the defense? All eyes will be on Brent Venables' group to see how much progress it has made this spring. If the D gets better, it could be a special season in Death Valley.
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, (ESPN3)
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks. It's been one of the hottest topics this spring in the ACC and arguably the biggest position battle in the conference. Check out Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston as they all battle to replace starter EJ Manuel.
- The defensive line. The competition is on to replace Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Mario Edwards Jr. is ready to jump in, along with Giorgio Newberry.
- Don't forget the kicker. It's big at FSU. The Noles have to replace Dustin Hopkins, the ACC's all-time leading scorer and the NCAA's all-time kick scorer. It's your chance to see Roberto Aguayo, who was one of the nation's top kickers coming out of high school.
When: 7 p.m. on Friday in Byrd Stadium
What to watch:
- The running backs. Both Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have had strong springs and will be competing for playing time come the fall.
- The receivers. This group should be a strong point for the team this year, as Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Nigel King are a talented trio.
- New faces on defense. The Terps have to replace six starters on defense, including some of their best leaders in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis.
When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3) in Wallace Wade Stadium
What to watch:
- Booooooone. Anthony Boone takes over at quarterback, and there have been rave reviews about him from within the program all spring. He's got a strong arm and is mobile.
- New faces at safety. Some big names are gone, as Duke has to replace graduates Jordon Byas and Walt Canty, and Brandon Braxton, who moved back to receiver. Jeremy Cash, eligible now after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last fall, headlines the group that includes sophomore Dwayne Norman (60 tackles in 2012 as true freshman) and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
- Front and center: There is one hole to fill on the offensive line and Matt Skura takes over at center for Brian Moore.
When: 3 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN3)
Gates open: 12:30 p.m.
What to watch:
- Defensive improvement. Is there any? The Canes were one of the worst in the country last year, but they return every starter up front.
- The No. 2 QB. Who is it? Gray Crow started the last scrimmage as the backup to Stephen Morris and completed 8 of 13 passes for 73 yards, with a touchdown and interception. Ryan Williams, who entered the spring as the expected No. 2, completed only six of his 12 passes with a touchdown and an interception. The coaches will be watching these guys closely on Saturday, so should you.
- Running back Dallas Crawford. You know Duke Johnson. It's time to get to know this guy. Those within the program have said Crawford has had a great spring and could be a rising star this fall. He scored two touchdowns in a scrimmage in Naples earlier this month.
When: 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPN3)
What to watch:
- Gio's replacement(s). A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been working to ease the loss of leading rusher Giovani Bernard. Can they be as effective as he was, how much progress have they made and who will replace Bernard in the return game?
- The O-line. Former guard Jonathan Cooper should be a first-round draft pick later this month, and it won't matter how good Blue and Morris are if they can't find anyone to help block for them. A total of three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
- Replacing big names on D. Cooper and Bernard aren't the only big names that will be missing. The defense is going to miss tackle Sylvester Williams, who could be another first-round draft pick, and linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 8.5 for loss). How does the D look without them?
When: 7 p.m. ET on Friday at Bethel Park High School (ESPN3)
Gates open: 5:30 p.m.
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks. Fifth-year senior Tom Savage has taken most of the reps with the first team, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik appears to be the backup, but coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter.
- The running backs. Earlier this month, it was announced that Rushel Shell has decided to transfer. Since then, the bulk of the carries have gone to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. How they fare will go a long way in determining how Pitt fares in its first season in the ACC.
- The offensive line. It's been problematic for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and Pitt now has to break in two new starters in Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- There are the little things Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd has to work on this offseason to become, as he says, "the most well-put-together quarterback" in the nation come August.
But before the little things came one giant thing.
Taking a shotgun snap.
Three springs ago, new offensive coordinator Chad Morris looked on in horror as he watched Boyd manhandle one snap after another. Boyd had never taken a shotgun snap before, and, well, he had problems.
"He would catch them with his stomach -- just like this," Morris said, jabbing his hands into his belly. "And it would just drive me crazy. So I didn’t think at that point that he would be where he is today. I thought we had to start with baby steps."
Those baby steps turned into monolithic steps. Boyd is the reigning ACC Player of the Year, has rewritten school and league quarterback records, and now has an eye toward a third consecutive 3,000-yard passing season. All those records are nice, but Boyd came back to school for something bigger: to help the Tigers win a national championship.
To do that, Boyd knows he has to be better than ever. If a trip to New York at the end of the season as Heisman finalist is the end result, so be it. But the goal this season is to win; and to win, Boyd has to improve in three key areas: footwork, decision-making and holding onto the football.
Footwork is one of the most overlooked aspects of good quarterbacking. Bad footwork often results in bad passes. To hone his skills in this area, Boyd spent his spring break in California learning from quarterback guru George Whitfield.
"Footwork leads to better decision-making and allows you to be more accurate," Boyd said.
And better decision-making means?
"It might not be that big of a deal to the blind eye but for people who study the game and understand what goes into a completion and things of that nature. Me, personally, I want to be the most well-put-together quarterback this fall."
And being the most well-put-together quarterback this fall means?
"Mechanically, decision-making and just being able to lead the team," Boyd said. "We open with a banger against Georgia, and we’re excited about that. Aaron Murray is a guy who is rated highly. I want to be able to outperform him. I don’t want question marks about my game after the season."
One of those question marks has focused on the aforementioned decision-making. Boyd threw 13 interceptions last season. Morris wants that number down to the single digits. Of the picks Boyd threw, Morris estimates that five were on bad decisions. A few, he says, were on him, for putting Boyd in a bad spot on third down. A few others were completely on Boyd, for throwing across his body and making an "impulse decision." And, as Morris says, "impulse decisions lead to bad things."
One of the most crucial mistakes came early in the fourth quarter against South Carolina. Trailing 20-17 and with momentum on the Tigers' side, Boyd stepped back to pass. He did not see Brison Williams coming across the middle. Williams made the interception, and Clemson dropped another heartbreaker to its instate rival.
"Tajh was one drive away from being in New York," Morris says. "If he would have completed the drive against South Carolina in the fourth quarter and we win the game, he goes to New York the next week for the Heisman Trophy. I think he was that close. It didn’t happen. There’s a few things we have to continue to work on, his reading of defenses, his footwork, just to be a well-rounded quarterback."
Does Morris expect Boyd to be in New York in December?
"Absolutely. I’m expecting to be there with him," Morris said. "That’s a goal of ours. It’s a goal he set for himself to come back. He feels like he can do that, and there’s no doubt. I think he’s one of the best in the country, I really do. You look at how many yards he’s accounted for in this offense, he’s rewritten every record Clemson’s had for quarterbacks. To have a third year underneath him in this system, I think the sky’s the limit."