CLEMSON — This time of year, coaches love to say how their freshmen “really aren’t freshmen anymore.”
The idea of course, being that they’ve experienced a year’s worth of work, and they’re mature beyond the class listed in the roster.
Tajh Boyd took that a step or five further last week.
“I feel,” Boyd said, “like a 30-year-old man.”
Makes sense, given the roller-coaster ride Boyd went on this season. When preseason practice began, he was still trying to convince Dabo Swinney and new coach Chad Morris he was their starting quarterback.
In the wake of an 8-0 start, he was a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate.
Following a 1-3 finish to the regular season that saw him throw four touchdowns against seven interceptions, he was a goat.
And in the ACC title game, he bounced back in a huge way, completing 21 of 29 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, running for another, in Clemson’s 38-10 rout of Virginia Tech.
Pretty good ride for a sophomore who set Clemson’s single-season passing and touchdown records, and was the unanimous choice as the ACC title game’s MVP.
“The biggest thing I learned this season is how you bounce back from adversity,” Boyd said. “Just let things go. That’s what this team has done.”
This season, Boyd learned a lot about himself. Most notably, that he isn’t perfect, or infallible.
You might’ve had a hard time convincing Clemson fans after the Tigers’ first eight games. Following a slow first half against Troy, the sophomore claimed the quarterback role as his own, throwing 24 touchdowns against three interceptions, with his quarterback rating dipping below 157.6 only once.
He threw for 386 yards and four scores against Auburn, and 367 and five touchdowns against North Carolina (in three quarters, no less). He looked like the player voted as first-team All-ACC.
“I took care of the ball really well in the first eight weeks,” he said.
Swinney and Morris expected growing pains; there were virtually none.
“It got to the point where it was almost like a sense of invincibility,” Boyd said. “Where you could make every throw you squeeze in. Even in practice, coach was about to lose his hair; I was throwing in windows this small.”
Soon enough, that penchant – plus offensive line injuries – caught up with him.
“It comes to a point where you’ve got to go out and do what’s best for the team, whether you believe it or not,” he said. “Sometimes you’re going to make a ball squeeze through a small space. That’s how it goes.”
Boyd simply had to be smarter about when and where he threw, he learned over the last four weeks.
“Coach (Morris) has a lot of confidence in us to make plays and go out and be smart about it,” he said. “They trust me and give me the keys to it, so I’ve got to keep growing each week.”
Senior left tackle Phillip Price’s sprained right medial collateral ligament – suffered against Wake Forest – hurt badly. Price played only one series the next two games, going the opening series at South Carolina before being pulled due to a lack of mobility. That shuffled the line; guard Brandon Thomas moved to left tackle and senior David Smith moved into the lineup at left guard.
With Price gone, Boyd had his two worst games of the season, throwing for 238 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 37-13 loss at N.C. State and completing 11 of 29 passes for 83 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 34-13 humbling at South Carolina.
Price played only half of the ACC title game before re-tweaking his knee injury; he is expected to return for the Orange Bowl.
At times, Boyd played as if he were affected by phantom pressure; he said he has full faith in his offensive line.
“I trust those guys with all my heart, they do the same with me,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’re a successful team, the faith we have in each other, unity. Sometimes I think I feel pressure, but I really don’t. It’s coming down to trust, and I trust those guys.”
That, too, is part of the maturity process Boyd has gone through this season.
“You grow a lot during the season,” he said. “Good times, bad times, those experiences are definitely what’s needed. That’s the best part about playing, seeing myself grow up every week. Even in weeks where things aren’t going as well as well with the team, I still feel like I’ve grown up in situations. I’m blessed to be in that position.”
And learning from it, too.
“If you’re going through these experiences and you’re not taking nothing from them, you’re going to keep getting them,” Boyd said. “But if you try and figure them out what’s wrong, what’s going good, how you can keep growing from it, that’s the way you can change things.”