CLEMSON, S.C. -- After three seasons in which his offense piled up a combined 18,993 yards and Clemson won 32 games, coordinator Chad Morris can understand the fear that complacency might creep into the Tigers' locker room. But the specific circumstances surrounding the program have made complacency impossible. "There's work to do, without a doubt. We're 0-5 against the other team in the state. There are things that we've got to do here to get this program to the level we want it at," Morris said during a recent visit. "Yes, we've won big over the last three years, but ain't nobody going home patting themselves on the back every night."
The "other team in the state" is Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks, who flipped the rivalry with Clemson on its head by winning five games in a row after losing 10 of the previous 12. There is also is the matter of the Tigers' chief ACC Atlantic Division foe. Last October, Florida State pounded Clemson in Death Valley en route to a 14-0 record and a national title. This year, the Tigers face the Seminoles in Tallahassee on Sept. 20. These two annual opponents have left Clemson in a strange place. It's a top-10 team that is neither the best in its own state nor the best in its own division.
Obviously, Morris, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and their boss, coach Dabo Swinney, would like to change this. They couldn't do it last season when Morris had the core of his skill-position group back for one final ride, but they hope to do it in 2014, when Venables returns a host of key playmakers. While Morris remakes the offense without quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Venables will try to sharpen a defense that returns end Vic Beasley, who finished third in the nation in sacks (13) and second in the nation in tackles for loss (23) last season. Venables also brings back linebacker Stephone Anthony, who led the Tigers in tackles (131), including 13.5 tackles for loss. "That's huge," Venables said. "Like any of these guys that have an opportunity to come back, you want them to come back for all the right reasons. You want them hungrier than ever. You want them more motivated than ever."
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Clemson's veterans certainly seem motivated. Beasley, for example, has been involved in one win over Florida State and zero over South Carolina. He can also help himself personally by proving his ability to play from a two-point stance -- as he did for much of the Tigers' Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State. That would help the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder, who projects as an outside linebacker in the NFL, raise his draft stock. It would also offer Venables more versatility against a schedule that features pro-style offenses (Georgia, Florida State), a run-as-many-plays-as-possible offense (North Carolina), a triple-option offense (Georgia Tech) and zone-read/ball-control offense that occasionally takes huge shots over the top (South Carolina).
Venables understands the place the Tigers currently occupy in the universe better than most. He was an assistant on those late-1990s Kansas State teams that came tantalizingly close to national title contention but always seemed to fall short. Venables then went to Oklahoma, where the Sooners got over the hump and won a national championship in 2000. "Being in that top-10 group, that elite group, first and foremost, that's hard to crack," Venables said. "Taking that next step is hard. You've got to be lucky. You've got to be good."
Besides the Seminoles and the Gamecocks, the biggest obstacle facing the Tigers is the unknown on offense. Morris arrived prior to the 2011 campaign. He named Boyd his starter that year, and Boyd had the luxury of throwing to Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins (who turned pro after the '12 season) and Martavis Bryant. Now, Morris must choose a new starting quarterback from a group that includes senior Cole Stoudt, redshirt sophomore Chad Kelly and freshman early enrollee Deshaun Watson. Watson cracked his collarbone this week and will miss the spring game on Saturday, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was knocked out of the competition. Swinney said this week that he doesn't expect to name a starter until August.
No matter which quarterback ultimately wins the job, Clemson still has some receiving targets. Charone Peake and Adam Humphries, who entered in the same class as Watkins and Bryant, can help the new starter adjust to the finer points of running the offense. (Peake is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last September, but he has been cleared to practice and plans to be back by this year's opener at Georgia.) But will that offense look like the one Boyd ran? That hasn't been decided.
Like Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who spent 15 years as a high school coach before moving to the college level, Morris spent his formative coaching years in the high school ranks. During his 15 seasons as a high school coach in Texas, Morris learned to adapt his offense to the players present in the student body. That's why Morris wasn't surprised to see Malzahn turn his once pass-happy scheme into a run-first steamroller last fall. Malzahn's personnel dictated the change, and the old high school coach rolled with the punches. Morris probably won't adjust his scheme so drastically that his team all but abandons the pass, but he will build specifically for the quarterback who is named the starter. Kelly and Watson are better runners, while Stoudt is a more accurate passer but less fleet of foot. "It's more adapting than recreating," Morris said. "You adapt to what they do best. That's what you do as a high school coach. You adapt to what you've got."
With so much adapting still to be done, don't expect Morris, Venables or anyone else at Clemson to waste any time patting themselves on the back.