Clemson Tigers' meeting of the minds
With Clemson a victory away from its first 5-0 start in more than a decade and coming off back-to-back victories over nationally ranked opponents, the marriage of Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd and new offensive coordinator Chad Morris seems like a match made in heaven.
But both Boyd and Morris will admit their honeymoon was rather rocky.
After Tigers coach Dabo Swinney lured Morris to Clemson from Tulsa in January, Boyd struggled mightily while trying to adjust to the fast-paced tempo of Morris' spread offense. Morris' goal is for his offense to run 80 plays per game, and the Tigers don't waste much time between snaps.
Boyd performed so poorly during spring practice that Morris wasn't convinced he would be his starting quarterback this fall.
"He wasn't a guy we felt like we could win with," Morris said.
After spring practice, Morris called Boyd to his office to give him his marching orders for the offseason.
"I call it my seven-minute meeting," Morris said. "They listen and I talk."
Boyd, from Hampton, Va., couldn't have been encouraged by what he heard.
"One of the things I told him was that this was a pivotal point in his career," Morris said. "I told him if playing football and being the starting quarterback at Clemson were important to him, then he'd better have a great summer. I told him he better take ownership of it and be so far ahead of where he ended spring ball that it wasn't even close."
After the first month of the season, the No. 13 Tigers are one of college football's most surprising teams and Boyd has been one of the country's best players. Clemson ended defending BCS national champion Auburn's 17-game winning streak with a 38-24 upset on Sept. 17, then defeated preseason ACC favorite Florida State 35-30 the following week.
The Tigers will try to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2000 when they play No. 11 Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday night. It will be Clemson's first game away from Death Valley.
"We're excited about this game," Swinney said. "I'm anxious to take these guys on the road and see where we are. We've been a good home team, but we have to be able to win on the road. We're starting at the top and it's going to be a big test for us."
Boyd is a big reason for Clemson's success, completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 1,255 yards with 13 touchdowns and only one interception. Boyd ranks No. 11 nationally in pass efficiency with a 173.8 rating and No. 12 in total offense with 327.5 yards per game.
"I think you saw a young man that took [Morris' message] to heart," Morris said. "He took a lot of pride in it. He took pride in leadership. It really meant a lot to him."
Learning the intricacies of Morris' offense isn't easy. His system is very similar to the spread attack that Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn uses, one that helped direct the Tigers to a national championship last season. In fact, Morris learned the offense from Malzahn when both men were still coaching high school football.
Morris, 42, was a successful high school coach in Texas, leading Bay City High to four state championship games and a Class 4A, Division I title in 2000. He moved to Stephenville (Texas) High School in 2002, where current Baylor coach Art Briles guided the Yellow Jackets to four state championships during the 1990s. Morris' first Yellow Jackets team went 6-4 and missed the state playoffs.
"It was the first time in 15 years that West Texas community didn't go to the playoffs," Morris said. "Needless to say, I wasn't invited to a whole lot of Christmas parties. That's one thing they take pride in -- their football."
Morris quickly realized he had to change his system to compete. A coaching colleague told him about Malzahn, who was running a spread offense at Springdale (Ark.) High School. Morris and his assistants flew to Arkansas to watch Springdale High School play in the state playoffs in 2002.
"I introduced myself to Gus after the game, and I still didn't know if he thought I was a scout disguising myself for another high school in Arkansas," Morris said. "He really wasn't receptive to me."
Morris flew back to Texas the next morning, only to return to Arkansas the following week. He watched Malzahn's team practice from the sideline. Malzahn was impressed enough to invite Morris back to Arkansas in January. Morris and his staff spent four days learning Malzahn's offense.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Morris said. "I remember driving back to the airport and all of us were sitting around a table. I told my coaches, 'If we're going to commit to this, we need to commit to it. But we also need to understand if it doesn't work out and we go 6-4 again, we're going to be fired. We have to be good with that.' It was a gamble we had to take."
The offense worked remarkably well, as Morris guided Stephenville High to playoff appearances in each of the next four seasons. He moved to Lake Travis High School in Austin in 2008, leading the Cavaliers to a 32-0 record and back-to-back Class 4A state championships in 2008 and '09. In 2008, he coached current Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who broke a state single-season record with 4,851 passing yards.
When Tulsa coach Todd Graham needed a new offensive coordinator after the 2009 season, Malzahn recommended Morris for the job. Morris said he turned down Graham three times before accepting the job. In his only season with the Golden Hurricane, Morris' offense averaged 505.6 yards and 41.4 points, helping them improve from 5-7 to 2009 to 10-3 last year. Tulsa was the only team in the country to rank in the top 15 nationally in both passing (288.7 yards) and rushing (216.9) in 2010.
When Swinney brought Graham to Clemson to interview for the Tigers' vacant offensive coordinator position in January, Boyd sat in on the interview.
"You can tell by [Swinney's] facial expressions if he's really excited about something," Boyd said. "I had a feeling [Morris] was probably going to be the guy."
But Boyd's excitement turned to anxiety this spring. Clemson was coming off a disappointing 6-7 record in 2010, after it ranked 88th nationally in total offense (334.6 yards per game) and 86th in scoring (24 points).
Boyd was being counted on to be the trigger man in Morris' high-speed attack, but his head was spinning even faster.
"Coach [Morris] preaches tempo a lot, moving the chains and moving the ball as fast as we can and getting as many snaps as we can," Boyd said. "At first, it was kind of hard to lead, while I was still trying to figure out what I'm doing as well. You're not as confident and you're not as sure. For any quarterback, if you're not in a comfort zone, things are not really going to go well."
Morris said Boyd spent the entire summer immersed in his playbook and watching film, trying to learn the intricacies of the offense. Morris said Boyd took only one day off this summer to join his teammates for an outing at nearby Lake Hartwell.
While Morris had his doubts about his new quarterback, Swinney was confident Boyd would grow into the offense.
"Actually, I was very confident coming out of spring ball," Swinney said. "He'd come a long way in the 15 days of spring ball. The biggest comfort was me knowing Tajh's work ethic. I knew he was going to be relentless this summer because that's the way he is and that's the way he's wired."
The addition of freshman receiver Sammy Watkins has certainly helped. Watkins, from Fort Myers, Fla., already has 28 catches for 433 yards with six touchdowns. He had 10 catches for 155 yards with two touchdowns against Auburn, and then seven receptions for 141 yards with two touchdowns against FSU.
It didn't take Morris long to figure out Watkins would be able to help the Tigers in his first season.
"I don't know, maybe 10 minutes in practice," Morris said. "It didn't take long. He's far more mature than your average freshman, by a long shot. I'm talking about his ability to communicate with you as a coach and what he sees on the field. Those are the things that are impressive."
Distributing the ball to multiple receivers and balance are among the staples of Morris' offense. Five Clemson players have at least eight receptions, and the Tigers have run the ball (180 carries) more than they've passed (137 attempts) in the first four games.
It's up to Boyd to manage the game and keep the Tigers moving fast.
"I think I fit the offensive system pretty well and we've got some incredible playmakers out there," Boyd said. "It just gives you so many different options on each play. Somebody is bound to be open on every play. You've got five matchups and you've got to trust your reads and trust what the coaches are telling me to do. Things have been working out pretty well."
The Tigers have been impressive so far this season, but there's still a long way to go for a program that hasn't won an ACC championship since 1991.
Virginia Tech figures to be Clemson's toughest test so far. The Tigers haven't beaten the Hokies since 1989, and Virginia Tech ranks in the top six nationally in run defense (43 yards per game), pass-efficiency defense (88.6 rating), total defense (231.2 yards) and scoring defense (10 points).
Clemson will attack the Hokies the only way Morris knows -- at a fast and furious pace.
"I think if you ask our fans right now, they're enjoying it," Morris said. "It's very fast-paced and it's [a] fast tempo. The players feed off of it and the fans feed off of it."
Clemson's fans aren't the only ones enjoying the Tigers' new offense.
"It's fun to watch and it's definitely a lot of fun to play in," Boyd said.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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