CLEMSON — The open water bottle on the table before him was labeled Dasani, but Chad Morris was more Red Bull Monday morning.
“It’s game week,” Morris exclaimed to a crowd of reporters, clapping his hands together twice. “Fire away.”
With Saturday’s much-anticipated Georgia Dome season opener against Auburn looming, the Tigers’ second-year offensive coordinator is ready to see how his system stacks up against Brian VanGorder’s new defense.
And even with a revamped offensive line, Morris is excited at the prospect.
“I’m extremely confident in there,” he said of the line. “It’s a mindset. I’ve been saying that since I got here, it’s a mindset with those guys up front. I feel good with the guys. Until we get live bullets flying at them, all we can go on is simulating as close to a game situation as we have in practice – and then put them out there in front of 75,000 people.”
The line returns only two 2011 starters in junior left tackle Brandon Thomas and senior center Dalton Freeman. It has endured its share of shuffles, thanks to projected starting right tackle Gifford Timothy’s torn meniscus and David Beasley overtaking Kalon Davis at left guard.
Monday brought good news: Morris said he expects Timothy, who returned to practice last week, to start Saturday. Redshirt freshman Shaq Anthony had manned the spot in his absence, but Morris said Anthony has “hit a wall” and that Timothy “gives us the best chance up front.”
“I feel like he’ll be able to start,” Morris said. “We’ll know this week. He worked out last week and the more the week progressed, the more reps he got. He looked good. He’s a little out of shape, but that comes with having two weeks off. We’ve got to get him back in game shape. I expect Giff to be the guy.”
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Morris says short-yardage situations – which were a problem last year and early in preseason – have been a major focus. They’ve gotten better, “but to what extent, I don’t know – talk to me Saturday.”
“It’s a pride thing. It’s an ownership, and it’s, ‘Hey, this is on me, let’s go get it,’” he said. “That’s what we want out of our group up front. “
He reiterated, as he has several times this year, that the line is more athletic and has more ability than it did a year ago.
“We move better,” he said. “Which is good in a scheme we have. It’s just fitting together, the cohesiveness you’re asking for with those guys, and you earn that through playing time. Repetition. Over and over again. That’s why it was so important for us to find those guys, this is it, here. Let’s stick with them. Let them compete against each other. From an athletic standpoint, we’re better.”
Now, it’s time to find out how they stack up in game situations.
“You try and do everything you can to take pressure off those guys. They’re Division I players. They’ve got scholarships. It’s time to go play. That’s what we expect of them. Nobody’s going to hold their hand. I’m not going to hold their hand. They’re here. I feel really good about those guys, but they’ve got to step in and here we go.”
Morris sounded equally confident that the offense can survive without star sophomore wideout Sammy Watkins, who will serve the first of a two-game suspension following a May drug arrest.
“We’ve had to manage,” he said. “There’s more guys out there than just Sammy. We had to have guys last year to make big plays besides Sammy. We all know what he’s like when he’s in there, the impact he has. It’s not about Sammy. It goes back to, you’ve got to have Tajh Boyd, you better have an offensive line that’s ready to go. Your skill guys on the edge that are ready to go. I feel good about that.”
Sophomore Charone Peake will start in Watkins’ place Saturday. Peake was inconsistent as a freshman but has enjoyed a solid spring and preseason. Morris said he is one of the three fastest players on the roster, alongside Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Fellow sophomore Adam Humphries had been the favorite to assume the role; he will also see significant time.
“I just think his consistency in camp really pushed everyone over the edge,” Morris said. “Charone has been as consistent as anyone we’ve had. A huge playmaker. Charone came on the middle to end of spring, gaining confidence back that he didn’t have last year. You were able to see him come out in fall camp.”
He praised Auburn’s stout defensive front and said VanGorder will disguise coverages and use multiple fronts.
“I’ve looked at everything. Anyone that’s had any contact,” he said. “We’ve watched film, we go back as far as we needed to go back. You’re at the point you’ve watched so much, you get film-crazy over it. It’s like all first couple games of the year, you better worry about the Clemson Tigers. My thought process.
We’ve got an idea, new coordinator, studying his past. You have an idea, but in the same sense you can’t beat yourself.”