By Will Vandervort
It’s late on a Thursday evening inside Clemson’s WestZone, and the only light on is coming from down the hall near Chad Morris’ office. There is no noise coming from inside, though it’s obvious someone is inside watching something on television.
But, they’re not watching television. Instead, it’s Morris rewinding film over and over again as he watches cutups that video assistant coach Tyler Carlton has made for him.
“My philosophy has always been that you have to grow professionally,” Morris said. “In all walks of life you have to do that, and it is no different here. To say we can reenact the past by doing the exact same thing this year and have the same results as last year, I think that is unfair.
“That is something that can’t happen and will not happen.”
Last year, there were few better in college football at calling offensive plays than Morris. In his first year as Clemson’s offensive coordinator, he led the Tigers to many school records, including total yards per game (440.8) and points (470). In doing so, he molded Tajh Boyd into a first-team All-ACC quarterback while setting school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins broke onto the national scene as a true freshman thanks to 82 catches for a record 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins tallied 72 catches for 978 yards, while tight end Dwayne Allen hauled in 50 receptions for 598 yards and eight touchdowns on his way to All-American honors and winning the coveted John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s best tight end.
Clemson’s running game wasn’t too bad either as Andre Ellington rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on his way to second-team All-ACC accolades.
“Our goal is to be balanced,” Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s always been our approach. We did a good job running the ball in this system last year, but we want to be better and we know we can be better.
“We may add in a few new wrinkles this year so that we can do that.”
Morris is not one to be complacent. His body of work through the years proves that. However, he learned this lesson the hard way. During his years as high school coach, Morris was known as a mastermind, an up-and-comer in the Texas High School League.
Stephenville High School, a traditional power, noticed that and hired him to be the head coach in 2002. Everything was great until his team failed to make the playoffs that year. Now, once the hot new item that everyone wanted, Morris was nearly thrown to the curb as fans and boosters alike wanted to see results.
That’s when, through a friend, Morris was introduced to Gus Malzahn, a high school coach in Arkansas, who found creative ways to move the football while keeping defenses off balance with a great mixture of both the running game and the passing game.
Malzahn’s system, combined with Morris’ creative tendencies was the perfect mix. Morris went back to Stephenville and led them back to the state playoffs. He soon took over at Lake Travis High School and, using the same offense, he led his teams to six state championship games — winning three of them — with back-to-back 16-0 seasons also mixed in.
While still growing and always eager to learn more and get better, Morris left the high school ranks to take over the offense at Tulsa in 2010, leading the Golden Hurricanes to a No. 13 ranking in passing with 288.7 yards per game and No. 15 in rushing with 216.9 yards per game. Their 505.6 total offense yards ranked fifth best in the nation.
Then last year he came to Clemson, where his creative offense and its unique style helped the Tigers win the school its first ACC Championship in football in 20 years.
“You are not only trying to broaden your knowledge about the game of football, but you have to stay on the cutting edge,” Morris said. “You cannot get stagnant. That’s one of the things I felt I learned as a high school coach. I was very blessed to go every year and change something up.”
Though staying true to what he learned from Malzahn and his own philosophy, Morris reached out to a couple of schools this year to see if he can make what is already a very good offensive scheme even better.
In 2004, Nevada head coach Chris Ault went to his assistant coaches and challenged them to help him find a way to be more effective with their running game and to do it in a way that would be more creative than anything anyone else was doing.
Ault’s idea was to take the quarterback, similar to the shotgun, and line him up four yards behind the center and then take the running back and line him up three yards directly behind the quarterback. By using this concept, Nevada’s coaches developed a formation that has allowed the Wolf Pack to become one of the more dominant rushing offenses in the country.
This formation, commonly known as the “Pistol,” places the quarterback close enough to the line of scrimmage to be able to read the defense and far enough back to give him extra time and a better vision of the field just like the shotgun. Using the pistol, Nevada led the nation in rushing at 345 yards a game in 2009, and was second in total offense at 506 yards.
The Wolf Pack also became the first team in college football history with three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
“Nevada is a place that over the last six years has been a top ten offense year in and year out,” Morris said. “They have done it by being able to run the football effectively. I have watched them on film, and I have played opponents they have played so I have been able to watch them. They do such a great job of downhill runs. They are a team I have studied on film, but this is the first time I went out there and visited them.
“They have a passion about their Pistol, and it was something I wanted to learn about.”
Last year, Nevada was eighth nationally in rushing (247.5) and sixth in total offense (506.7).
“People are going to watch you,” Morris said. “Just like we do, they have film on everything we did. That’s why you have to change and try to stay ahead of the game.
“We chose Nevada because they have a passion about their Pistol. It was something I wanted to learn about. It was good. We brought a lot of good stuff back, but we also feel like what we do is good. It’s a fine line. There is a delicate balance, a fine line of what you get rid of and what you keep. You can’t keep it all. There is no way.”
One reason Morris chose to study the Pistol was the fact he had Ellington returning to Clemson for his senior season. With Ellington’s vision and the fact defenses cannot see him when he is standing behind Boyd, it gives the Clemson running back an edge when breaking down a defense.
“They can’t see me back there,” Ellington said. “When the ball is snapped, the linebacker can’t see, for about a second, where I’m headed or if I even have the ball. It definitely gives the offense an advantage because the linebackers and the safeties are frozen for that split second, then they have to try and play catch up as to what we are doing.”
Meanwhile, at Oklahoma State, head coach Mike Gundy took Nevada’s Pistol concept and incorporated it into his pass-happy offense.
“Their philosophy is completely on the other end of spectrum than Nevada’s,” Morris said. “Nevada is a run to win, while Oklahoma State is a pass to win.”
Clemson is a balance-to-win offense, but Morris was intrigued with the way Gundy used the Pistol and how he used quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon, both first-round picks in the NFL Draft.
In 2011, the Cowboys were third in the nation in total offense (545.6 per game) and were second nationally in passing yards (387.2). Blackmon caught 121 passes for 1,522 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“We feel like we have that type of caliber receiver in Sammy and that type of quarterback in Tajh,” Morris says. “Oklahoma State did such a great job with those two, especially with Blackmon. We already do a lot of things with Sammy, but we think there are some things in that offense that we can incorporate into ours which will allow us to have new and creative ways to get Sammy the football.”
During spring practice, Morris was pleased with what the offense learned. Most of the offense that will be used this fall, including the new wrinkles he picked up from Nevada and Oklahoma State, were installed during the 15 practices the NCAA allows, which is why Ellington did not have minor ankle surgery until just before the spring game. Morris wanted all of his star players to learn the entire offense before the spring was over so they can work on it during voluntary workouts this summer.
“There were a lot of things that went well and there are a lot of things we still have to work on,” Morris said. “We finished up a good spring, but now we have to have a great summer.
“My biggest concern heading into summer is their ability to work hard this summer with the hunger they had last summer. If you want to sum it all up, that’s it right there. They are going to work hard. Everybody in the country is going to work hard, but what are we going to do to increase the gap between the most invested team and the least invested team this summer?
“I always say, ‘The hungry cat hunts best, and how hungry are they.’”