CLEMSON — You spoiled us, Chad Morris.
A year ago, Morris swept onto Clemson’s coaching staff like a supernova, revitalizing the Tigers’ moribund offense and fueling the program’s first ACC title in 20 years with his hurry-up, no-huddle system.
Last December, Clemson fended off overtures from a host of schools, including Ohio State and Urban Meyer, signing Morris to a contract extension which made him the nation’s highest paid assistant coach with a $1.3 million annual salary.
His system is thrilling and innovative, in victory and defeat.
So it was natural for Clemson followers to hope the same kind of magic happened under Brent Venables’ watch.
Four games into Venables’ tenure as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, it doesn’t appear that easy fix is imminent. Saturday night, No.4 Florida State shredded his system for 667 yards of total offense – second-worst in school history – in a 49-37 win over No.10 Clemson.
FSU gashed Clemson with the run, going for 287 yards. They made big plays, small plays and everything in between, averaging 8.9 yards per play. By comparison, West Virginia rolled up 589 yards of total offense in last January’s 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle that ultimately cost predecessor Kevin Steele his job.
There is no magic bullet, no quick solution to what ails Clemson’s defense. The Tigers struggled to contain offenses last year even with a defensive line that featured current NFL rookies Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson.
Now, with defensive end Malliciah Goodman as the only upperclassman on the roster, they struggle to generate pass rush. Clemson has four sacks in four games, and two of those came from cornerback Bashaud Breeland and linebacker Jonathan Willard.
There are good pieces at linebacker in Willard, middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and “Sam” linebacker Travis Blanks (who needs to be on the field as much as possible). But Anthony and Blanks are learning on the job.
The less said about the secondary, the better: coverage busts and poor tackling abound.
Venables put the blame on his own shoulders Saturday night, but here’s the real problem: he doesn’t have a lot to work with right now. It speaks volumes that Corico Wright – Steele’s starting middle linebacker the last two seasons – didn’t receive a single snap Saturday night.
Saturday, Venables reached into his bag of tricks, working with a three-man defensive front and getting Blanks on the field at the same time as fellow “Sam” ‘backer Quandon Christian.
But even that didn’t seem to slow Florida State’s potent offense.
It is hard to imagine Clemson playing as talented an offense as the Seminoles the rest of this season, with the possible exception of South Carolina or a bowl opponent. But Morris’ system – which rolled up 37 points and 426 yards of offense on the nation’s No.1 defense – will have to carry its share of the load and then some.
Venables said in August that he wasn’t comfortable with his new group’s depth, which suggests that mass change isn’t coming.
Last year, Morris thrived in part because of the pieces in place and on the way; quarterback Tajh Boyd, wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins and tight end Dwayne Allen.
Venables’ prime pieces watched on television: Clemson does have a commitment from Grayson (Ga.) defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top overall recruit, and is on the short list of five-star defensive tackle Montravious Adams.
For now, though, he’ll have to work with what he has – which means Morris and Co. will have to keep carrying a heavy load.