CLEMSON, S.C. – The moment Dabo Swinney hired Chad Morris, the trajectory of Clemson’s program completely changed.
Over the last two-plus seasons, Morris and his high-powered hurry-up, no-huddle offense have vaulted the Tigers into national prominence.
Brent Venables’ defense is improving, but if Clemson has any hope of capturing a much-coveted BCS national title, the Tigers will do so on the strength of their offense.
At the 2013 season’s first quarter pole, the Tigers are 3-0 and ranked No. 3 nationally, their highest ranking since 1988. But Clemson is only 45th nationally in total offense, averaging 464 yards per game, and 34th in scoring offense at 38.7 points per game.
There are several important issues that Morris, the Tigers’ third-year offensive coordinator, must solve for the offense to reach its full potential.
1. Wide receiver depth: When junior Charone Peake went down with a season-ending ACL tear, the Tigers’ wideout corps was dealt a major blow. Through two games, Peake ranked second on Clemson’s roster in receptions and third in receiving yardage. He is an athletic threat who had the ability to stretch defenses and keep them honest.
While Swinney raves about his replacement, junior Adam Humphries, saying “he’ll play in the NFL if he’s able to stay healthy,” he doesn’t scare defenses. Humphries went without a catch Thursday at N.C. State and was not a primary target of Tajh Boyd. Without Peake, Clemson has only six scholarship receivers: junior Sammy Watkins, junior Martavis Bryant, Humphries, redshirt freshman Germone Hopper and true freshmen T.J. Green and Mike Williams.
Bryant struggled in the season opener against Georgia but had a breakout game at N.C. State, catching seven passes for 93 yards and a pair of athletic touchdown grabs. At 6’5”, he has perhaps the most NFL-ready body of the receivers but must display more consistency.
Hopper, Green and Williams all must mature quicker than expected.
Morris is a big fan of Hopper, whom he said “earned his trust” with an excellent preseason.
“We knew his time was coming, G-Hop’s as explosive a player as we’ve got,” Morris said. “We’re excited about him. Now he’s playing with more confidence. He walks different when he’s in the office. He feels good about himself in some areas. He’s got to continue to play well, play physical. You’ll see that. He’s a young guy who’s trying to figure it all out."
2. Shore up the offensive line: Morris’ offense is built around a tough, physical running game. While senior tailback Rod McDowell has shown flashes, including a career-high 136 yards against Georgia, the Tigers are averaging 183.8 rushing yards per game, only 62nd nationally.
Junior right tackle Gifford Timothy was pulled from the game following the second series after allowing two sacks. Swinney said Sunday that he didn’t have an explanation for his poor play until Timothy told trainers that he had taken a blow to the head; he is questionable for this week’s home game against Wake Forest with a concussion.
If Timothy can’t play, sophomore Shaq Anthony will take his place. At N.C. State, All-ACC senior left tackle Brandon Thomas shifted to right tackle with sophomore Isaiah Battle playing capably at left tackle. That won’t be an option this week since Battle will be serving a suspension for his late-game uppercut of an N.C. State defensive back.
Regardless, the line needs more physicality and consistency for Clemson to compete in its toughest tests remaining: Florida State and South Carolina.
3. Settle down, Tajh: At times, Boyd has looked harried in the pocket, forcing rushed throws. He struggled to get in a rhythm at N.C. State despite completing 24 of 37 passes for 244 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, admitting so afterward.
Through three games, he has passed for 683 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions, solid if not spectacular numbers. Morris has preached that Boyd must take what defenses give him, which has led to more short passes. For example, Watkins caught 10 passes against N.C. State, but rolled up only 96 yards, averaging 9.6 yards per reception.
With 2012’s top target, DeAndre Hopkins, now catching passes from Matt Schaub for the Houston Texans, Boyd has been forced to improve his rapport with Bryant and the freshmen, as well as Watkins. It remains a work in progress.
Swinney knows the offense is itself an unfinished product. He is confident that will change as the season rolls along, though.
“I don’t have any doubt,” he said, “that when all is said and done, this will be one of the best offenses that has played at Clemson.”
*Unless noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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