When Chad Morris returned to Texas, he left the sheet music because it belonged to the world.
The concepts were not original and the genius wasn’t on the pages of “the most explosive offense in college football.” Morris’ themes in four seasons as Clemson offensive coordinator were a blend of innovation with roots at least a half-century old.
Instead of black high tops and leather helmets, it was jazz with tempo and rhythm, and space for improvisation. The genius was in how it was taught, and how it was played and how it continued to flourish after Morris left Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott to explore the possibilities and bounce harmonies off one another.
Skeptics wondered how Elliott and Scott would co-exist. Who would call the plays? Who would be the final arbiter?
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During the early weeks, there were suggestions Clemson missed Morris and his energy.
Dabo Swinney rolled his eyes. He always has the last word, and he cautioned against drawing conclusions a month into the season. A more sensible sample, 11 games entering the 12th Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, reflects a dramatic improvement in offensive production, including an average increase of more than a touchdown and 100 yards per game from the 2014 season.
If there’s been a change in philosophy, it’s largely imperceptible. The most noticeable differences have been five new starters on the line, including a freshman at left tackle, and a healthy quarterback. Morris began recruiting Deshaun Watson from the moment he stepped off the plane because he was a prodigy, the perfect fit for the riffs available to a gifted young artist.
Besides the knowledge of the playbook and ability to handle pressure, Watson has been a complementary piece in the run game, pushing Clemson to more than 200 yards a game for the first time since 2006. The run-pass balance has been a critical component to Clemson’s success through 11 games
There was a perception that Morris would give up on the run too quickly, and when he was stubborn about sticking to the plan last season when Watson was injured rather than tailoring his calls to backup Cole Stoudt’s strengths.
“I think we’re more about taking what people give us. Last year, we tried to force things that were not there,” said left guard Eric Mac Lain.
Mac Lain graded the Elliott-Scott partnership an unequivocal success and believed the team has benefited from their histories.
“I think they do a pretty good job feeding off each other,” he said. “They’re just two brothers having a good time. There’s a chemistry that’s hard to create just for coaching.”
They were teammates, receivers at Clemson before becoming colleagues, stretch partners when Scott was a freshman and Elliott a senior.
Scott was born to the business with a rich pedigree as the son of former coach Brad Scott, and raised around Bobby Bowden’s greatest teams at Florida State. He chose coaching early, won a high school state championship in his only season as a head coach, then returned to Clemson and studied Morris, taking meticulous notes.
Elliott came from a less than idyllic childhood, orphaned at a young age. Bright and driven, he majored in engineering at Clemson and took a job in the private sector before deciding he missed the game and the people in it. Eventually, he rejoined his friend on Swinney’s staff, where his mind for analytics and abstracts were perfectly attuned to Morris’ music.
The compatibility extended to their families. Their wives are friends and both delivered babies weeks apart this season. Savannah Jennings Scott was born in September. Austin Christopher (Ace), the Elliotts’ second child, arrived in November.
Probably not until after the season will Elliott and Scott take stock of what they’ve achieved, so comparing their small body of work to Morris wouldn’t make sense at this point. As play callers, they evaluate themselves weekly and they’re critical of themselves.
“I still see opportunity for us to improve,” Elliott said. “I know we’ll always be asked that question, but we’re not worrying about that. We’re worrying about dong the best we can for these guys.
“The biggest thing is that the guys are confident in Jeff and myself, which helps our confidence to continue to grow and work hard week in and week out to put together a sound plan.”
By turning a deaf ear to critics, Elliott said they can continue to help the offense evolve, sprinkling new ideas like the package they showed during the second half last week bringing backup quarterback Kelly Bryant off the bench and pushing Watson to receiver.
“Let’s stick with the plan. Let’s find a couple of wrinkles each week that we can change up,” Elliott said. “More importantly, have our guys confident to play because they’ve executed the plan in practice and they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Obviously, said Mac Lain, it has worked.
“I think it’s been real cool and see them mature as coordinators,” he said, “to where they’re dominating games mentally.”
Playing the game off the same sheet music.
Clemson’s offensive improvement from 2014 to 2015: