Just five years ago, Chad Morris was guiding Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, to its second straight state title. Now, many Longhorns fans want him to replace Mack Brown, despite being a graduate of Texas A&M.
With college football’s offseason coaching carousel looming, Morris—who is in his third season as Clemson’s offensive coordinator—is a name on the tip of the tongue of athletic directors such as USC’s Pat Haden.
After a string of record-setting seasons as a coordinator, Morris is the next offensive mastermind in position to take over a major program. That's despite a resume that lacks experience as a college head coach.
Morris can thank Chip Kelly, Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Art Briles for blazing the trail for high school football coaches.
In fact, according to Greg Wallace of Orange and White, it was Malzahn who gave Morris pointers on how to install his hurry-up, no-huddle system almost a decade ago when both were still coaching on the prep level.
The story goes that after Morris failed to make the playoffs at Stephenville (Texas) High School in 2003, he sought out Malzahn’s help in bringing a fresh perspective to his offense.
As Morris detailed to ESPN’s Ivan Maisel on ESPNU’s College Football podcast (around 21:00 mark) last month, he had either played for or won a state title in four of the previous five seasons using an offense that relied on I-formation and shotgun concepts. He heard of Malzahn through a friend of a friend, and then convinced his school’s booster club to pay for him and his offensive staff to fly to see Malzhan’s team in action in a playoff game.
But Malzahn resisted meeting with Morris until he pulled off the same trick a week later and finally earned the trust and respect of a man who has become one of his biggest coaching influences.
As Chris Vannini of coachingsearch.com notes, Malzahn didn’t give Morris a copy of his playbook. Instead, he shared ideas with Morris on how to adapt and adjust to what defenses were doing at the time.
“I was a little leery to be honest with you, at first,” Malzahn told Bleacher Report recently. “But we developed a relationship, and he brought his staff up to Springdale (Arkansas). From then on, we just started sharing ideas. We think a lot alike.”
Since that meeting with Malzahn, Morris’ teams have compiled a record of 116-16—including a minimum of 10 wins in all four seasons (one at Tulsa and the last three at Clemson) on the college level.
With Clemson 10-1 and ranked No. 6 heading into Saturday's season finale at No. 10 South Carolina, the Tigers have crossed the 10-win plateau for the third consecutive season, which has happened only once in school history.
Let’s be clear: Morris didn’t just steal Malzahn’s offense and put a different hat on it. He has added his own wrinkles along the way, including getting explosive receivers such as Sammy Watkins involved in the run game, as illustrated by Shakin the Southland.
G.J. Kinne, who played quarterback under Morris and Malzahn at Tulsa, and for Kelly in a stint with the Eagles, said that there’s one common link between all three coaches.
“The tempo,” Kinne said. “I think that’s one thing that defines Coach Kelly, Coach Malzahn and Coach Morris’ offenses. (It’s about) getting those guys lined up quick and make the defense show their cards.”
Two things Morris will bring to his next landing spot are points and yards. In 52 games at the college level, his offense has averaged nearly 40 points per game and less than 10 yards shy of 500 yards of total offense (Clemson is averaging nearly 517 yards per game in 2013).
However, the brilliance of Morris’ scheme is not that it leads to points, but how it leads to points. Its success is rooted in the misconceptions it causes with complex pre-snap movements on the field and the illusion that the system doesn’t emphasize the running game in the film room.
“Where people get it messed up is when they think it's a gimmick offense,” Kinne said. “We do a lot of fun things, like reverses and stuff like that. But if you look at Coach Malzahn's and Coach Morris’ offenses through the years, they are very balanced. We’re a run-first team that sets up the pass.”
Malzahn’s stats in six seasons as an offensive coordinator (at three different schools) are similar to his star pupil’s. The biggest difference is that Malzahn's units are more prolific on the ground while Morris finds more success through the air. Morris also nets nearly 10 additional snaps per game.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison between Morris' and Malzahn’s offenses is their affinity for employing dual-threat quarterbacks as the trigger-men to their potent attacks.
Hank Carter succeeded Morris as the head coach at Lake Travis (Texas) High School after spending more than a decade under Morris as a player and coach.
|Comparing the offenses of Chad Morris to Gus Malzahn|
|Offensive Averages Per Game (rounded to nearest tenth)||Chad Morris||Gus Malzahn|
|Stats courtesy of cfbstats.com, B/R research.|
As Carter notes, the Malzahn/Morris offense likes using mobile quarterbacks. Kinne and Tajh Boyd have excelled in Morris’ offense by hurting teams with their feet by design and when things break down.
“He likes guys who can run because it gives you an extra blocker,” Carter said. “You have to be able to make some plays outside of the scheme in today’s game.”
Morris also excels at creating matchups in space. In essence, systems like his have taken the emphasis off the interior and placed it with electric skill players who thrive in one-on-one matchups in space.
“It used to be that you had to be good up front in order to drop back and pass,” said Yogi Roth, a Pac-12 Network analyst. “If you can’t do that, then they would quick-game the death out of you. Now, that’s not the case. (The system is designed) to take advantage of unique matchups, and I think that’s really smart.”
While being an offensive innovator has fueled Morris’ rise through the coaching ranks, it will take more than on-field prowess to become a successful college football head coach.
It’s his proven effectiveness as a gifted leader and communicator that will appeal to the decision-makers in the hiring process.
Morris the Leader
Kim Brents was hired as the principal at Lake Travis shortly after Morris took over the Cavaliers football program. She said she often marveled at how Morris stressed the importance of being a teacher first to members of his staff. That meant putting simple things such as dressing appropriately, monitoring hallways and attending faculty meetings ahead of being a football coach.
“That is why he has been so successful,” Brents said. “Because he cares about the little things, and he does them right. That makes the big things take care of themselves.”
It’s that kind of attention to detail that has helped him win nearly 88 percent of the games he’s coached in the past decade.
Carter said that Morris sets the tone with his passion for the game, and that helps develop a bond with his players that carries over to the field.
“He’s incredible with the players,” Carter said. “He has a rare ability, and there’s very few guys that have it, and it’s not too hard to figure out (who they are).
“The players absolutely love him, and they’d do anything for him.”
Kinne agrees, noting that Morris has a quality that players respond to.
“He automatically demands that type of respect,” Kinne said. “He’s just a winner. When he walks into a room, it’s kind of like everyone feels OK.”
Getting players to believe in the system, and more importantly to execute at a high level, are of the highest priority for any coach. It’s the foundation of Nick Saban’s famed process, as detailed by Greg Bishop of The New York Times.
For Morris, making sure the players are fully invested in the system is a critical element to his unit’s success.
“It’s a different way of doing things, and it makes them take ownership in it, buy into it and believe in it,” Carter said. “(Morris’ offense) makes it hard for the defenses to prepare, and it makes his players buy into the fact that we’re doing something that not many others can do.”
The Future Is Bright
In a small way, all of the pre-snap shifts and motions utilized in Chad Morris’ offense mirror his personality.
To hear Carter describe his mentor’s philosophy, Morris is a bundle of energy who will never rest until he finds the best way to consistently put defenses in a bind.
It’s that relentlessness with which Morris has created an offensive system that has wreaked havoc all the way from the prep fields in Texas to the college level in the ACC.
The only thing he doesn’t have is experience with running his own program in college.
However, with the success of peers such as Briles, Freeze and Malzahn, the apprehension of administrators considering a coach with Morris’ prep-heavy resume has faded considerably.
“Right now in college football, there’s a big shift going on with athletic directors and programs wanting offense as the identification of their team versus the other side of the ball, which is what we’ve seen in the past,” Roth said.
For those snickering at the thought of a powerhouse program hiring someone without head coaching experience at the college or NFL level, it’s not unprecedented territory.
In fact, a handful of perennial top-10 programs have gone that route in recent years. Kelly was Oregon’s offensive coordinator for two seasons before taking over for Mike Bellotti. FSU’s Jimbo Fisher and Florida’s Will Muschamp were also coordinators before scoring their current gigs.
In his quest to stay ahead of the curve, Morris is always searching for a way to give his players the best opportunity to be successful. That’s why his system has always been more of a work in progress instead of a finished product.
“He adjusts everything,” Carter said. “He’s not going to be married to one type of play or scheme. The thing that I think he hangs his hat on is the ability to change and roll with the punches and adjust. I think that’s one of the things that makes him rare too.”
Ultimately, Morris will have to sell his vision to another athletic director, community, fanbase and group of players. However, if history is any indicator, it’s only a matter of time before he finds success.
“He has the ability to get kids to do things that they never thought they could have because they know that he believes in them, and I think that’s why he will be successful in the future,” Brents said. “He makes you want to work harder than he does. He makes you want to be stronger than he is. That’s what he did for us. He started that strand of, ‘this is what excellence looks like.’ I think that’s what he will bring to any program he’s associated with.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.