CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson's most important target this offseason made his decision almost a month before National Signing Day. "That's definitely the best recruit we got," Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "Oh my gosh. It's huge."
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney isn't so sure he did such a masterful job recruiting quarterback Tajh Boyd back for his senior season. Swinney believes the NFL's draft advisory board did most of the work for him. "Had he gotten a higher grade, he probably would have gone," Swinney said. "But he got a mid-round grade." Swinney appreciates the result, but he doesn't appreciate the grade. Having watched Boyd since 2009, Swinney can't understand how the advisory board misjudged the Hampton, Va., native so badly. "When I saw his grade, I went 'Wow.' I really thought he'd get at least a second-round grade," Swinney said. "He's special. Tajh is special. He can spin it as well as anybody I've been around."
Certainly, Boyd's height -- he's listed at 6-foot-1 -- is an issue for NFL scouts, but given the recent success of an even shorter dual-threat quarterback who lit up the ACC for three years before doing a post-grad year in the Big Ten, it would seem NFL teams would be intrigued by a player who in 2012 threw for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns, ran for 514 yards and 10 touchdowns and finished fifth in the nation in passing efficiency. Of the dual-threat quarterbacks piling up huge numbers in hurry-up offenses, Boyd's game seems to translate best to the NFL; at heart, he's a pocket passer who also happens to be capable of gaining significant yardage on the ground.
Fortunately for the Tigers, the NFL personnel people will have another season to come to their senses. Given what Boyd has accomplished in two years as Clemson's starter and his awareness of what he needs to improve, that could be a very special season. Keenly aware of that possibility, Morris made a request of Boyd when he learned of the quarterback's return. "If you want to be a first-round draft pick, if you want to be a unanimous All-American, then you need to let me coach you like one," Boyd remembered Morris saying. "There are no shortcuts in this offense." It wasn't all that different from the moment after spring practice in 2010 when Morris called redshirt freshman (and presumed starter) Boyd into his office and warned him that if he didn't offer more effort, he'd be riding the bench in the fall.
Morris wasn't being unjustly harsh on Boyd then, and he isn't now. He simply knows Boyd's potential, and Boyd knows he occasionally needs a boot to the butt pad to unlock that potential. "I love coach Morris to death," Boyd said. "It's been a joy working with him and playing for him because he challenges me. I've always been one of those guys where I need that extra push."
This week, with Clemson on spring break, Boyd is in San Diego working with quarterback guru George Whitfield. Footwork, Boyd said, is the theme of the week. Meanwhile, Morris will continue to refine an offense that has shattered school records. Last year, Morris consulted with then-Nevada coach Chris Ault and added Pistol elements to Clemson's hurry-up attack. This offseason, Morris has traded ideas with the offensive staffs at Arizona State and Ohio State with the hope of designing plays to get more production from his backs in short-yardage situations. "He was like a kid in the candy store," Boyd said of Morris when the coach returned from Tempe, Ariz., brimming with new concepts.
Short-yardage situations are a priority because last season Boyd often wound up carrying the ball on critical downs. While he's an effective runner, the hits add up. Never was that more apparent than in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU. Boyd carried 29 times -- for only 22 yards -- but three of those yards came on a crucial third-down conversion midway through the fourth quarter of Clemson's 25-24 win. The adrenaline surge from the victory carried Boyd through his postgame duties, but the pounding from a bunch of future NFL defensive linemen caught up to him later. "I was good in the moment," Boyd said, "but for those next two weeks, every morning I woke up was pretty rough." (Probably the only players more exhausted than Boyd that night were the poor LSU defensive linemen. Clemson ran 100 plays, but add penalties and LSU's defenders had to get in a stance and fire off 107 times.)
The roughest part of this spring for Boyd will be playing without three of his biggest security blankets. Center Dalton Freeman is gone. So are tailback Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre "Nuke" Hopkins. But Boyd believes the Tigers have recruited well enough to replace those players without a hiccup. He calls redshirt junior tailback D.J. Howard "the most explosive player we have on this team." Meanwhile, the replacement for Hopkins has already been an All-America once. Junior Sammy Watkins, who torched the ACC his freshman year before an arrest on a drug charge and an illness hampered his sophomore season, has moved into the "nine" receiver position vacated by Hopkins. During Clemson's first week of spring practice, Watkins told reporters that he and Boyd were so in sync that a look or a quick hand motion could alter a play at the line of scrimmage and produce a long completion. Morris is happy to give his stars the license to alter plays -- to a point. "That's the best part about [the offense]," Boyd said. "You get freedom. Granted, you've got to complete it."
Boyd should complete it often come fall. Will that be enough for Clemson to take the ACC back from Florida State or get over the in-state hump against South Carolina for the first time since 2008? That depends on how hard he and his teammates want to work this offseason. With a season-opening visit from Georgia and the annual finale against the Gamecocks, the Tigers need not worry about how perception of the ACC will affect their fortunes nationally. If they win, they'll be considered a national title contender.
Morris believes that even though the offense compiled huge numbers in his first two seasons, it can become even more dominant in Boyd's third year as the starter. "We've done a lot of really good things over the last two years offensively," Morris said. "But we haven't really even scratched the surface of being at our absolute best. There's so much more that we can get better at and he can get better at."
That, according to Boyd, is precisely why he returned. "One of the biggest questions for me when I was making my decision was 'Is there room for me to improve at this level?'" Boyd said. "Because if there's no room to improve, then there's no reason to come back."