Chad Morris doesn’t hold the franchise rights to the Clemson offense anymore than Bill Walsh did on the West Coast offense. Both schemes were syntheses of old themes because there’s nothing truly “new” in football beyond the minds and faces.
Nor is it Dabo Swinney’s offense, though he knew Morris – the former offensive coordinator – would give him something nearer his vision. Finally this season, Swinney sees the offense approaching full bloom with Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott sharing the role Morris held for four seasons.
Walsh’s genius was an ability to blend his philosophy with those of Sid Gillman, Al Davis and Paul Brown. The seeds of Morris’ concepts were rooted in the spread, no-huddle scheme he embraced as a Texas high school coach – largely borrowed from Gus Malzahn.
As an Arkansas high school coach, Malzahn discovered inspiration in a book written by Tubby Raymond, who won 300 games at the University of Delaware using an offense he learned from his predecessor, David M. Nelson, generally credited as the father of the Wing-T.
After Morris was hired, Scott was instructed to shadow him and prepare to eventually replace him. Scott won a state championship with a version of the spread in his one season as a high school coach, so the transition was simple. When Elliott, a former engineer, joined the staff, he quickly recognized the left-brain symbiosis with Morris the former math teacher.
Swinney realized Scott’s pedigree and Elliott’s intellect could be an asset. That they were friends and former teammates made compatibility a non-issue.
“I think Tony and I have been out front (that) this is Clemson’s offense,” Scott said. “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about Tony. This isn’t about one person that’s calling the show and kind of has the puppets on the string. This is about our guys and our execution.”
Walsh had quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Malzahn had Cam Newton and Nick Marshall. Much of Morris’ success at Clemson was because of the arm and strong will of quarterback Tajh Boyd, and the talent of receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
Finding the ideal quarterback was his first objective, and virtually from the day he stepped off the plane Morris began recruiting Deshaun Watson. Owner of Georgia high school records for total offense, Watson was the prototype Morris imagined, a prolific passer and adroit runner with an analytical mind and superb vision.
They were together for a single injury-scarred season. Watson played on one good knee in their final game together, beating South Carolina to end an inglorious five-game losing streak to Clemson’s archrival.
More than the scheme, Watson might be Morris’ legacy. Scott and Elliott were the chief beneficiaries.
Preseason player of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, Watson has been limited this season by the weather and the need to comb out the kinks in a new line and polish a group of young receivers.
There were moments at Louisville and in a steady downpour with Notre Dame, but not until last week’s game with Boston College did Watson have a clean canvas. Though he went outside the lines a couple of times, in general he was masterful.
The offense is designed to stretch the field and probe for mismatches. Morris liked to throw deep, believing his receivers would beat most college corners. Most defenses try to cap Clemson’s advantage.
Some prefer using blitz and stunt packages, with man-to-man coverage. Watson came out throwing early against Boston College, but was missing – barely.
“It’s like a great player – Michael Jordan – missing some shots. You’re going to keep passing it to him and let him take those shots because he’s going to hit them,” Scott said. “It was good to see him come back and respond in the second half.”
Scott and Elliott agree Watson functions like a coach on the field. The offense he ran in high school is a mirror image of what he runs now, and he began to call plays at the line as a junior. Eventually he hopes to have the full confidence of his coaches to resume that role. Until then, he waits patiently for his coaches to catch up.
“We give him a lot of freedom,” said Scott. “If he sees things from time to time he has the freedom to make those checks.”
The advantage of targeting eight or nine receivers allows them all to remain fresh late in the game. Artavis Scott was Watson’s fourth option, playing his 39th snap. The corner covering him was at 63, so he lagged on a 51-yard touchdown pass.
Defense has been pivotal in Clemson’s first six games, but offense grabs the headlines. Quarterbacks receive most of the credit and offensive coordinators are typically first on the wish lists of athletic directors needing an injection of energy in a moribund program.
Ideally, the College Football Playoff committee weighs all factors equally when making its decision. Teams like Baylor, TCU and most every team in the Big 12 figure are “all in” on offense. Morris went back to that neck of the woods as head coach at SMU, leaving Clemson where Swinney hopes two heads – or even three and four – are better than one.
Our players and our staff feel very comfortable and confident with what we’re doing,” Jeff Scott said.
Tigers vs. Hurricanes
Who: Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) vs. Miami (4-2, 1-1)
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.
Radio: 93.1 FM
Satellite radio: Sirius/XM 84
Line: Clemson by 7 1/2
Series record: Miami leads, 6-3