CLEMSON — Chad Morris is, for the most part, pleased with Clemson’s offense. Eight games into the 2012 season, the Tigers are in the top 14 nationally in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense, with Saturday’s visit to 6-2 Duke and home games with Maryland, N.C. State and South Carolina ahead to close the regular season.
The Tigers’ offensive coordinator is an exacting critic, but feels his unit is fresh and ready to peak over the season’s homestretch. He discussed Sammy Watkins, Tajh Boyd, the offensive line, tight end issues and much more with reporters Monday. The following is an edited version of the conversation.
On Sammy Watkins’ breakout game: “Listening to Sammy talk, talking about that, watching the way he’s worked out to this point and time in the year. He had a really good work week and coming in, especially off the open week, he was trying to get some routine, get his body into playing shape, and I think that’s something he’s been missing. When you’ve really prepared all during fall camp and knew you weren’t going to play the first two weeks, and you can’t get in a rhythm, and then he gets sick, there wasn’t... it was hard to get into that playing shape.
“That’s one of the things we really challenged him on, to try and speed that process up. I think he really beared down on himself last week. We really beared down on him but it was more himself taking note and just bearing down on himself. We’re very proud of the game he had. But we’ve all come to expect that every game out of him. When that doesn’t happen, everyone wants to know, what’s wrong with Sammy? When you know it’s just a matter of time before he breaks out. I said it a few weeks ago, I think he’s going to do it at the right time when this team needs him the most.”
On opening up the playbook: “I felt we had to be more aggressive than we have been in the past week or so. And having (Watkins) in 100-percent playing shape, having Nuk (Hopkins), we all know what Nuk has done this year. When you look back on it we’re best when we’re spreading the ball all over the field. We had 16 different people touch the ball the other night. That’s a tribute to the guys executing this system. I was pleased with that because we were definitely more aggressive.”
On Wake’s schemes causing trouble in the run game: “Yeah, there was. They were definitely loading the box up on us. We wanted to come out and try and establish a run game, try and get Andre going. And they made a decision they were going to bring and extra two hats on the box and play some man coverage. That’s been the flavor this year. When FSU played us 2-man most of the night, everyone’s followed suit. We’ve seen a lot more man and zero coverage than we anticipated we’d see this year with the skill guys we have. When that happens, you’ve got to be able to throw some balls over the top and hit your crossing game. I thought we did that the other night.”
Does that surprise you: “It really does surprise me in that regard. When you see the type of skill guys we have, you know Sammy hadn’t been back 100 percent. You’ve had Nuk and Jaron (Brown) and Adam (Humphries) and those guys. When you’re able to get two going it takes a lot of pressure off guys and give you that breath of fresh air and we were able to hit that the other night on third and 11, third and 12. Backed everyone up at that point.”
On offensive line’s progress: “(They’ve progressed) very well. They have. I’m a typical coach. I want to line up and knock everyone off the ball. Three yards and a cloud of dust, every play. I know that’s not going to happen. I’m proud of those guys. We’ve tried to develop the continuity of those five guys. But you just wish you had a little more competition to push guys, to motivate a Brandon Thomas, to motivate a David Beasley. Which we do. Ryan Norton’s come in and give us a spark. But Ryan’s also having to give a spark at center, left guard and right guard. There’s just nobody at that tackle position that’s ready to make a push. I’m proud of them and think those guys would be a little more on edge knowing their job was at stake every week.”
On Andre Ellington’s outside runs: “We tried the other night with some of our outside zone scheme and we actually had a couple. We slipped on a couple of them, and we did some of our zone read stuff, getting him out of the box. We were trying to get him going, get him loose and we were close the other night.”
On Sam Cooper at tight end: “Sam is a guy who’s really starting to earn a lot of people’s trust. He’s playing physical. I’m very proud of Sam. He made a great catch the other night (for a touchdown) obviously. He’s playing a lot more physical, a lot more confident in himself. I’m glad to see that. You’ll see a lot more of Sam Cooper. He’s earned that. Maybe it’ll spur Brandon Ford on a little more. We’ve got a good competition, a good battle going on there. I’m proud of Sam and really excited to see him grow, come into his own. I told him the other day how proud I was of him, for him to catch that ball the other night. That was a tough catch. Even though they had spotted him where he was. Sam’s a guy who’s going to get a lot more reps.”
On the lack of touches at tight end: “Looking back at our production from that 3-back position a year ago to where we are now, it’s not. You were ahead last year with Dwayne (Allen). It is what it is now. Sam’s going to be a guy that’s got to push Brandon Ford on a little more, we’ve got to get Brandon playing faster. He’s not playing with that sudden burst that he was earlier in the year. He’s kind of been banged up but we’ve got to get Brandon going a little bit. I think the competition with Sam behind him is going to push him.”
On Duke’s defense: “Very well-coached, very sound. They’re a 4-2-5 scheme, they too play a lot of man and zero coverage. They did a lot of that against Florida State last week. They may play as much zero and cover one as anyone we’ve seen this year. They like to bring a lot of pressure when they do that, they’ll bring more than you can block. So we’re going to have to work on getting the ball out of our hands when that happens. When people do that, press you up, you’ve got to be able to take some shots over the top. But that’s what FSU did. They hit some big plays on them. They play extremely hard. Last year they had some injuries, one of their defensive ends was injured, and played four games, before he went out he was leading the ACC in sacks. They’re going to play extremely hard in front of their home crowd on a night game. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
On Martavis Bryant: “It was good to see him get going and get in the mix. He caught a few balls the other night. He provides such a great acceleration and big body. We’re excited he’s back 100 percent. We’ve got Sammy going, we know what Nuk has done. We’ve got Jaron, Martavis. Those guys have really gotten going. Our offensive line is getting going and getting Andre going in the run game.”
What percentage of offense is in: “We’re up there. Getting Tajh more involved has helped push us over the edge. I wouldn’t say we have it all in but we’re 85 percent or so. And the thing I’m excited about is that you’re watching Tajh, he’s becoming more confident in running the ball. He had a great night throwing the ball but he’s running with some attitude, some authority, behind his pad level. That’s something you didn’t see last year. He was hesitant. I’m really excited about the direction we’re going with him and in our run game. Without a doubt, he’s getting a lot of confidence.”
On improvement from a year ago: “The one thing, a year ago, at this time, I didn’t feel like we were really starting to see that gradual climb. I feel like one of the best things that happened to us was from an offensive standpoint was Virginia Tech. I think it brought some of these guys back down to earth. You better bring your A-game every week.”
On Boyd’s early throwaway on third down vs. Wake: “I thought that was one of his best passes all night. He was able to throw it away. Again, it’s just being able to manage the game. He gets these tip sheets, reminders, game-day reminders we put in his locker. Just three bullet points. That’s one of them every week – manage the game and move the chains. Sometimes your best pass is to throw it away. When you saw that, his ability to pull down on a third and four, on their sidelines, tuck and run and pick it up, pick up another third-down run going into score, you see him doing those things early in the game, that’s an indication he’s on.”
On the turnover spree of last November: “I wish someone wouldn’t bring that up. You look back on last year and find out where your downfalls were, and obviously turnovers were a big part of it. What caused us to give the ball up? It wasn’t we said we’re not going to preach it at practice. And I think the way our schedule is set up for us, with our open week, playing a Thursday night game and give another day off for our players, it’s going to bring us mentally (better) for these final four weeks that you’re after. We talk all the time, November’s a time to remember.
“You’re going to be remembered for what you do in November. We’re going to preach that. You maintain your focus for the final 26-27 days and get this done. For our players, a year ago we were just battling for an open week. Everyone was mentally strained for this one week we were fixing to get off. It was a challenge for everyone, our young player, where now, there’s a sense of freshness about them. They have a little pep in their step, they’re excited, they had a day off Saturday. A chance to watch everyone else and get ready for this final four. It helps you a bunch.”
On keeping Boyd in the Wake game long enough to break the single-game passing record: “I went to coach Swinney and found out he was nine yards shy of a career high. And for what he’s done for our program, what he’s done here, that says a lot. Can we get him his career high without getting hit? That was one thing. Coach Swinney, I had to promise him he wouldn’t get hit. I was trying to call the plays he wouldn’t get hit. We dropped the first one, the second one gets batted. At that point, this is it. I ain’t battling for you after this third-down call here. You’re on your own. After this one, you’re coming out. And luckily we were able to find it. He found it. It was great for him, for the program, what he’s done here.”
On the impact of breaking the record: “I know Thursday was on national TV, everyone’s watching. I know what we and our players do. I think it was great for recruiting. For the showing we had, it was good for recruits. Those are things you go out and talk about and sell your program to. What you do offensively, look at the records we’ve broken here. That’s all they are. They’re going to be broken again, it’s a matter of time.”