Tajh Boyd was the best quarterback in the ACC last season, on the best team in the league, yet before the tears dried in Miami, they began soliciting names for replacements.
As a result, much of the conversation about quarterbacks in the ACC this year revolves around the depth of talent.
Frequently — and curiously — it does not begin with Boyd.
Curious because none of them had a season comparable to his, one in which he:
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• Set a conference season record for total touchdowns passing and rushing, eclipsing Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson;
• Came within one of tying Rivers’ record for touchdowns;
• Passed for more yardage than every quarterback but Matt Ryan, Rivers and Chris Weinke.
Logan Thomas generally is considered one of the three best quarterbacks on the 2013 NFL draft board should he leave Virginia Tech after this season. Thomas and Mike Glennon at N.C. State are favorites of draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., generally because they are several inches taller. Scouts Inc. grades E.J. Manuel at Florida State higher than Boyd. And NFLDraftScout.com lists Bryn Renner of North Carolina ahead of him among 2014 prospects.
In his second season as a starter at Clemson, Boyd again will be working from an offense designed to showcase a passer on a team rich in receivers. Rather than take it for granted, Boyd set about making himself a better quarterback, a more dangerous weapon.
Clemson coaches believe the offense can be more effective if the quarterback is a threat to run rather than just a competent escapist, so he dropped almost 15 pounds by eliminating fried, fatty food and haunting the weight room.
Boyd was intercepted 12 times last season (could have been worse had Wake Forest’s defense better hands), nine in the final four games when, as coach Dabo Swinney explained in so many words, the team couldn’t manage the money after winning the lottery. Boyd went back to quarterback school, absorbing information like a biscuit in gravy.
On reflection, Boyd said, he really didn’t know what to expect last season. “It was like a confidence, but an unknown,” he said. “I think this is what I’m going to do, but I don’t know.”
Texan Chad Morris was in his second season as a college offensive coordinator with a new team in a strange land. He didn’t know the league and was eight months into a relationship with Boyd when the season began, yet Morris made him a believer.
“He’s very confident, and it rubs off on me,” Boyd said. “We’re kind of growing up together.”
Morris has been everything he promised, demanding yet compassionate.
“He puts so much into this game, into this offense. It’s ridiculous,” Boyd said. “When everything’s good, it’s good, but the way he challenges you sometimes, you want to jump off a bridge.”
Morris wants to play fast, pedal to the metal, 80-plus snaps per game. Now Boyd prepares with a better grip on reality.
“Now as a whole team, we have an understanding of what we can be and what we’re capable of doing,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting. You always know you can be good, but sometimes you have to have proof as well. I just think last season, we showed spurts, sparks of it.”
Center Dalton Freeman sees a difference in Boyd from last year, in the way he prepares and the way he practices. The easiest explanation, Freeman said, is that Boyd “is playing a lot faster, more confident.
“He’s not having to think as much. Any time you are a little bit hesitant, you play slow, you play unsure and you’re not as confident. It slows everything down, and you’re not as successful,” he said. “But when you know that you know what you know, you can go out there and play pretty well. I think that’s what we’re seeing in him.”
Boyd wants to bury the Orange Bowl and kick dirt on the grave. “People judge us off our last game, that game was nine months ago. People talk about it like it was yesterday.”
Boyd said he woke up Monday with a smile on his face “because it’s game week.” Playing Auburn of the SEC in the Georgia Dome on national television, “it’s a platform for us,” he said.
“All those experiences from last season have helped shape us.”
So the best quarterback in the ACC last season prepares for what he believes can be a better season, regardless of who’s in the conversation.
“Heading into the season, we don’t want to be on the radar here or there, a flash in the pan team, flash in the pan players,” Boyd said. “This year we really feel we can be a championship team.
“We really believe the only team that can beat us is us.”