CLEMSON, S.C. – When Chad Morris arrived in Clemson in January 2011, he faced a huge task: turn a stuck-in-the-mud offense into something special.
Under offensive coordinator Billy Napier, the Tigers offense had no identity and went nowhere fast.
With ACC Player of the Year and NFL first-round pick C.J. Spiller and NFL wide receiver Jacoby Ford on board in 2009, Clemson reached its first ACC title game and beat Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.
In 2010, however, the system crashed back to earth. With Spiller and Ford gone, Clemson slipped to 6-7 and was utterly inefficient offensively. The Tigers averaged 24 points per game (86th nationally), 334.6 yards per game of total offense (88th nationally), 195.6 passing yards per game (78th nationally) and 139 rushing yards per game (79th nationally).
It was no surprise when Dabo Swinney acted quickly to fire Napier following the end of the 2010 season, which finished with a 31-26 Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to South Florida. Clemson finished 6-7, its first losing record since 1998. Its offense needed identity. It needed a spark. It got Morris, who had just finished his first year as a collegiate offensive coordinator at Tulsa.
Three years later, the hire can only be deemed a smashing success. Clemson has won 31 games over the past three seasons, compiling three consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1987-90. With an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, the Tigers would win 11 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.
Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense is at the root of the success. Entering the Orange Bowl, Clemson is within range of numerous program records. The Tigers average 502 yards of total offense, 329.3 passing yards per game, 40.2 points per game, 25.3 first downs per game and have a team pass efficiency rating of 162.1.
And the standards for all of those records were set a year ago.
The hurry-up, no-huddle has Clemson in excellent position. How has Morris’ offense evolved since he arrived at Clemson?
Let’s examine, taking a look at the 2011 and 2013 seasons and how much has changed.
Two years ago, the Tigers ran 530 rushing plays and 525 plays, a nearly equal percentage: 50.2 percent rushes and 49.8 percent passes.
They ran 75.4 plays per game and averaged 5.8 yards per play. They converted 82.7 percent of their red-zone chances into scores.
This fall? The Tigers have run 508 rushing plays and 453 pass plays. That works out to 52.8 percent rush attempts and 47.2 percent pass attempts.
Clemson has run 80.1 plays per game, averaging 6.3 yards per play. The Tigers are converting 84.8 percent of their red-zone chances.
|Tajh Boyd's season-by-season performance as Clemson's starter|
|Year||Passing yards per game||Touchdowns||Interceptions||Yards per attempt||Completion percentage|
|Clemson sports information|
This year, they’re 47th nationally in red-zone scoring, down from a nation’s-best 94.7 percent a year ago.
And it’s worth noting that both teams are far better than Napier’s final group inside the 20. In 2010, the Tigers converted just 68.4 percent of their red-zone tries, 117th out of 120 FBS teams.
Here’s what’s interesting: Even though Clemson is rushing more than it did two years ago, Morris’ group has improved its passing regardless. Two years ago, the Tigers averaged 282.3 passing yards per game, 21st nationally.
This season’s group averages 47 yards more in passing per game and ranks 12th nationally.
It also averages more rushing yards (172.7 vs. 158.5 in 2011, ranking 61st and 59th nationally, respectively).
So what is behind the improvement? Well, it’s pretty simple, really: Tajh Boyd.
In 2011, Boyd was a sophomore in his first season as a collegiate starter. In 14 games, Boyd threw for 3,829 yards, averaging 273.4 per game while throwing for 33 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He completed 59.7 percent of his passes and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt with a 141.2 efficiency rating.
This fall, in 12 games, Boyd has thrown for 3,473 yards, averaging 289.4 passing yards per game. He has 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions, averaging 9.31 yards per attempt with a 166.6 efficiency rating and is completing 67.6 percent of his passes.
It also doesn’t hurt having a target like Sammy Watkins at your disposal. In 2011, Watkins enjoyed one of the best seasons ever by a college freshman receiver, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. Following a sophomore slump caused by suspension and injuries, he bounced back in a big way this fall. In two fewer games, Watkins has 85 receptions for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns.
As Boyd goes, so go the Tigers. Since 2011, Clemson is just 1-5 against rivals South Carolina and Florida State. In those losses, Boyd averaged just 176.8 passing yards per game and had five touchdowns against six interceptions.
In all of those games, he was pressured by physical defenses that wore him down.
While Morris’ system has been spectacularly successful at Clemson, physical groups that are able to pressure Boyd are an Achilles’ heel.
With Boyd departing following the Orange Bowl (and Watkins, a projected top-15 NFL draft pick, likely to follow), it’ll be fascinating to see how the offense changes next.
Highly touted quarterback recruit DeShaun Watson will face off with Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly in spring practice to replace Boyd. Watson is in the same mode as Boyd, capable of throwing and running equally well. This fall, Boyd said Watson actually reminds him a lot of himself, and he could be the perfect heir to the hurry-up, no-huddle.
Boyd’s maturity made an already-potent offense even more successful, and the system could take a step back under his successor. Whoever it is has an unenviable task: making a great offense even better.
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