CLEMSON — Clemson came to the line at the Auburn 4. The Georgia Dome was roaring, with Auburn trying to protect a 19-16 lead early in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.
As Clemson’s offense lined up, DeAndre Hopkins looked down the line at Tajh Boyd, the Tigers’ junior quarterback.
Boyd caught his eye, changed the play at the line.
Moments later, he threw a fade to Hopkins, his talented junior receiver, in the right corner of the end zone, with an Auburn cornerback draped all over him.
Hopkins gathered the ball and put one, two feet down in the right corner. Touchdown, Clemson.
A yellow flag for defensive pass interference lay next to him, but it didn’t matter.
Clemson led, and never looked back in a 26-19 season-opening win.
“Nuk’s one of the best at the point, going to get the ball with guys around that there is,” Boyd said of Hopkins. “I felt I had to take advantage of it. There wasn’t any signals. He just looked at me, I looked at him, and let’s go. It’s definitely exciting working with a guy like that.”
That small but important moment shows how Boyd has grown up in his year-plus as Clemson’s starting quarterback. Coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris raved about his improved maturity and game management, and Saturday was his first real chance to put it on display.
Boyd’s numbers were hardly eye-popping: 24-of-34 completions for 207 yards with a touchdown and an interception, as well as 58 yards rushing on 19 attempts.
But he rallied his offense from a fourth-quarter deficit caused by a damaging interception; his poise and level-headedness drew raves, a sign that Boyd is a more complete player in his second season under center.
“One of the challenges coach Morris posed to me in the offseason was, how do we respond from adversity?” Boyd said. “Ever since I came to Clemson I’ve grown each year, and shown that, somewhat. At the end of the day, being a quarterback, you can’t act a certain way, lead a certain way and expect those guys to respond to you, because they’re looking to you.”
Following Boyd’s end-of-season slide – nine touchdowns against nine interceptions over the final six games of 2011 – coaches challenged him to lose weight (he has dropped to 220 pounds from 235 at the end of last season).
Morris and Swinney also challenged him to improve his decision-making: not just where to pass, but when to pass, when to run and when to hand off.
“It’s that maturity of the decision-making process,” Swinney said. “He really did a good job with his progressions. He did a good job with decision-making in the running game. He had that big, long run (27 yards, earlier in the go-ahead drive). Last year there were several times when he kept it when he should have handed it (off) and handed it when he should have kept it. He was inconsistent with his technique and fundamentals in the run game. It was good to see him very disciplined and consistent in that regard.”
They also clearly trust Boyd; Saturday night, 10 of Boyd’s completions were run calls audibled to passes at the line. Hopkins’ catch was originally a run call; Boyd changed it so quickly and released so fast that no one, even his linemen, were the wiser.
“Coach Morris gives me a lot of room to change, get out of certain plays,” Boyd said. “I don’t want to get to the point where I’m not doing the right things. I try to put the team in the best position possible.”
That means working as a facilitator, not someone who forces plays.
“I’m like a point guard,” he said. “point guard, dishing it out to make plays for those guys. As a quarterback, you want to feel like the coach trusts you, you have that much more confidence to put this team in situations that work.”
And when you see Hopkins open, it’s time to pass the ball.
“We look at it like it’s disrespect,” he said. “We feel we’ve got some of the best players in country. Put them one on one, we’re going to test whoever’s out there. They’re going to press, we’re going to see what they’ve got out there.”
As he enters his second full season as the starter, Boyd is clearly feeling more at ease.
And he’s just getting started.
“I’m still getting comfortable with everything and the maturation in this offense,” he said. “That’s the best part about year 2 in this offense. I’ve got to keep growing, keep learning. I’m excited about the opportunities this team gives me.”