CLEMSON — The highest-paid assistant in college football admits he didn’t call the biggest play of the season, which probably speaks more to Chad Morris’ style and confidence as a coach than the extraordinary numbers Clemson posted in 2012.
On the threshold of his third season as Clemson’s offensive coordinator, Morris holds the cards for a potentially huge pot — including a deep, experienced offensive line, another potential first-round NFL wide receiver and, for the first time in his young career as a college coach, a third-year starting quarterback.
In Tajh Boyd, he has the perfect combination of leadership, skill, acumen and aptitude to drive Clemson’s state-of-the-art offense. Most importantly, he said, Boyd has the thick skin and resilience to handle Morris’ insistence for attention to detail.
“This system has answers,” Morris says. “You’ve got to know what your answers are.”
Morris could have walked away.
After the first season at Clemson, with Urban Meyer dangling a spot on his new staff at Ohio State, Morris received a bump to $1.3 million, still the standard for college assistants. After N.C. State called in November, they couldn’t come to an agreement on the depth of the school’s commitment, so Morris came back because he knew the answers — at least for the short term — were with Boyd and Clemson.
“Having a guy back for a third year, it allows us to expand even more in our offense. He gets it. He knows it. 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.”
They hit it off from the start. After Dabo Swinney hired him off the Tulsa staff, Morris’ first call in this direction was to Boyd, who was projected to be the starter as a redshirt sophomore. Boyd, in turn, called Morris’ quarterback at Lake Travis High in Austin, Texas, Garrett Gilbert, then at the University of Texas, who told him that Morris was a valued mentor.
Now, when Boyd is poring over video, he might dial Morris at any hour and make a suggestion. Morris said there’s never been occasion when Boyd second-guessed him or pouted over a decision.
“We need him more involved in our game planning,” Morris said. “We want him more involved in our (staff) meetings.
“I’m still going to challenge him. I’m going to coach him harder this year than he’s ever been coached. I’m going to put more on him this year, but I think he’s ready for that.”
Morris wants Boyd to master the entire playbook, which he estimated was 80 percent installed.
In Morris’ second season Clemson ranked No. 9 nationally in total offense, No. 13 in passing offense, No. 4 in passing efficiency and No. 6 in scoring.
“I fully expect us to be better. I expect us to be more aggressive. I expect us to expand in our offense with a third-year starter back,” he said. “I think it’s going to be interesting to watch him grow or expand.”
Despite losing receiver DeAndre Hopkins and center Dalton Freeman, he isn’t at a loss for ideas. With Boyd, four offensive line starters and junior receiver Sammy Watkins, an All-American as a freshman, the possibilities are seductive. Last year, he visited Nevada and installed pieces of Chris Ault’s pistol scheme. This year, he visited Arizona State to touch base with Todd Graham, his former boss at Tulsa.
“We talk about being the most explosive offense in the country, and we have been,” Morris said. “There are so many things and so many hidden yards we left out there.
“There’s so much more we can do better.”
Morris wants to push the accelerator through the floorboard. After averaging 85 plays per game in 2012, third-highest in the nation, his goal is 92. From an offense that smells pass, he wants to average 226 yards rushing after hitting 200 last year.
It may be late in August practice before he settles on a starting center, tight end may become a situational mix-and-match, down-and-distance committee and there may be as many as four running backs sharing the load, but Morris knows it won’t work without Boyd being better than ever.
Boyd passed for nearly 4,000 yards and 36 touchdowns last season. He trimmed down, added muscle and ran for 10 more touchdowns. In the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he put the team on his back to beat LSU to finish fifth nationally in passing efficiency and seventh in total offense. He was named All-American and ACC player of the year, and should push into the conversation for Heisman Trophy this year.
Not a soul on the Clemson campus begrudges him the recognition, including Morris. Defensive line coach Dan Brooks described Boyd as “a warrior.”
“There’s nobody on that football that will challenge Tajh Boyd,” he said. “If Tajh Boyd says this is what we’re going to do, that’s what we’re going to do, offense, defense. If he says this is it, (then) that is it.
“The thing that Tajh has learned — and it has come with being a proven quarterback, a better quarterback — is that you don’t have to please everybody, and that if you’re trying to please everybody, you’re going to fail. To become a better teammate, he’s had to become a more matter-of-fact type of guy. This is the way we’re going to do it. If you don’t like the way we’re going to do it, then you can leave.
“That’s not his personality, but that’s what he’s grown into. That’s how he’s earned respect from his teammates.”
Boyd seems to understand his importance to the team and embraces it. He looks leaner and stronger, weighing about 225 two weeks before practice starts. He had the option of entering the NFL draft, but the league’s draft advisory committee projected him as a fourth-rounder.
“His goal when he came back was to win a national championship, to be an All-American, to be a Heisman Trophy candidate,” he said. “He’s got goals he set for himself and this football team.”
Morris’ work with Boyd isn’t finished, making it all the better that they have one more season together.
“He’s aware of the coverages. He’s aware of the fronts, the adjustments, the blitzes, the answers that we have in our offense, and that’s where the experience comes in,” he said. “You can always improve your footwork. He can always improve in his coverage recognition, his blitz recognition.
“You can’t master the quarterback position. If you think you’ve mastered it, you better look out because you’re about to hit rock bottom. I think that’s at any level. You can ask Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, Tom Brady. You never master the position. You try to gain an advantage.”
Morris saw Boyd turn a major corner in that regard in how he prepared for and played against LSU, with supreme confidence — “I’ve got this. I got this figured out.”
Morris knows they can’t go it alone this season, which was why he doesn’t take credit for choosing the play that turned the momentum in the closing minutes of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Morris easily credits tight end Brandon Ford for delivering the play on fourth and 16. Based on the safety’s inclination the previous play, Ford selflessly told him what he thought would give Hopkins the best chance to be open.
It was the biggest throw and catch since Dantzler-to-Gardner in 2001. Boyd didn’t hesitate with a throw to a window where only Hopkins could reach it.
“I think you see that with the game on the line he wants the ball in his hand,” Morris said. “And this year we’re going to put the ball in his hands a whole bunch.
“I think he’s going to have an unbelievable year because he gets it. He understands it.”