NC State

Clemson can afford loss of coordinator Chad Morris, but not QB Deshaun Watson

Clemson's Artavis Scott (2) works his way to the end zone with a 33-yard touchdown reception past North Carolina's Sam Smiley in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Clemson won, 50-35.
Clemson's Artavis Scott (2) works his way to the end zone with a 33-yard touchdown reception past North Carolina's Sam Smiley in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Clemson won, 50-35. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Chad Morris was the highest paid assistant coach in college football for a reason.

Morris transformed Clemson’s offense and helped head coach Dabo Swinney win more games.

After four successful seasons together, Morris left Swinney for the top job at SMU in December. If you’re expecting Clemson to regress to its pre-Morris form on offense, think again, Swinney says.

The Tigers, with outstanding young quarterback Deshaun Watson and two of the best receivers in the ACC (Artavis Scott, Mike Williams), should have one of the top offenses in the country in 2015 and have the best chance to end Florida State’s three-year reign in the ACC.

“Most people will watch us and they won’t see anything different as far as how we play,” Swinney said earlier in the spring.

That’s because Morris’ hurry-up, spread scheme – foreign to the ACC when he was plucked from Tulsa in 2011 – is now what Swinney calls the “Clemson offense.”

“Coaches are going to come and go, but we don’t change for a coach,” Swinney said. “We have something that we believe in and that we’ve recruited to.”

Recruiting has always been Swinney’s strength. Clemson’s past six classes have all been ranked in the top 20 by Rivals, two (2011 and 2015) were in the top 10.

Swinney doesn’t get enough credit for bringing in Morris (at $1.3 million per year), and later defensive coordinator Brent Venables, and getting out of their way. The way egos and coaches go, that’s a lot easier said than done, and Swinney has let his assistants shine.

The numbers before Morris and after are hard and fast and leave little room for nuance.

In Swinney’s first two full seasons at Clemson, he went 15-12, including a 6-7 mark in 2010. Swinney went 42-11 over the next four seasons after Morris came aboard and won the ACC title in 2011. Morris left before the 40-6 bowl win against Oklahoma last season.

Was it Morris’ scheme or Swinney’s talent that led to the upturn? Clemson has had both, so there wasn’t a need to differentiate between the two in 2011 when the Tigers posted their first double-digit win season since 1990. They have reached double-digit wins in every season since.

If Watson is healthy, and can stay healthy, new coordinators Jeff Scott (son of former South Carolina coach Brad Scott) and Tony Elliott, should do just fine in Morris’ stead this season.

The problem for Clemson: Watson is coming off major knee surgery and was only able to stay healthy for a handful of games last season. On the good end of the modern knee injury rehab scale there’s Adrian Peterson and on the other end there’s Robert Griffin III. Clemson doesn’t want to recreate some of the problems the Washington Redskinshave had with Griffin because he came back too soon.

When Watson was able to play in 2014, the Tigers were great, outscoring North Carolina, N.C. State and South Carolina by a combined total of 126-52 in three wins. In Watson’s first extended action, the Tigers fell 23-17 in overtime at Florida State (after losing 51-14 at home during the previous year).

Watson threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions, and he ran for another five touchdowns.

If Watson, who had surgery on his left knee in December, isn’t ready for the opener then fourth-year Nick Schuessler, a former walk-on and accounting major, becomes the most important person in the program.

The Tigers will be fine without Morris, but the same can’t be said without Watson.

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ACC preview schedule

Atlantic Division

May 31: No. 1 Florida State

June 7: No. 2 Clemson

June 14: No. 3 N.C. State

June 21: No. 4 Louisville

June 28: No. 5 Boston College

July 5: No. 6 Syracuse

July 12: No. 7 Wake Forest

Coastal Division

July 19: No. 1 Virginia Tech

July 26: No. 2 Georgia Tech

Aug. 2: No. 3 UNC

Aug. 9: No. 4 Duke

Aug. 16: No. 5 Pitt

Aug. 23: No. 6 Miami

Aug. 30: No. 7 Virginia

Clemson at a glance

2014: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)

Coach: Dabo Swinney (61-26, entering eighth year at Clemson)

Returning starters: Offense (5), defense (3), special teams (1)

Plus

▪ If quarterback Nick Schuessler has to hold down the fort for Deshaun Watson, he couldn’t ask for a better group of skill players.

Junior receiver Mike Williams led the Tigers with 1,030 receiving yards last season, and sophomore Artavis Scott led the team with 76 catches and eight touchdowns.

It took a while for sophomore Wayne Gallman to emerge as the primary running back, but he finished with 541 yards in his last five games against FBS opponents, including plus-100 efforts in three of those games, including 191 yards vs. South Carolina.

▪ Defensive end Vic Beasley was the ACC defensive player of the year and the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft.

According to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, there’s “not a huge difference” between Beasley junior defensive end Shaq Lawson. That’s a high bar to set, but Lawson has 71/2 career sacks and had 34 tackles in 2014 in a backup role.

Minus

▪ Clemson ranked No. 1 in the county in total defense (260.8 yards per game) and No. 3 in scoring defense (16.7). That’s a long way from the 2011 season when West Virginia scored 70 points in the Orange Bowl and the Tigers ranked No. 71 in total defense.

But the entire defensive front (which included two draft picks) and four other starters have to be replaced from the unit.

Swinney’s confident the starters will be fine but his concern is depth. Save for the season-opening loss to Georgia, Clemson’s defense was dominant last year and it’s going to be a chore for this group, with so many new parts, to measure up.

▪ Watson’s really good, but he missed four games with a hand injury and then three more with the knee injury. If he can’t stay healthy, this team can’t hit its stride.

Different athletes recover at different rates but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that next year you’ll be reading a whole batch of “Watson’s finally healthy” stories going into the 2016 season.

Best-case scenario: Watson really is the bionic man, the offensive line comes together, the receivers find another gear and the defense maintains the level of excellence to give the Tigers the ACC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario: Watson doesn’t get back to 100 percent, or can’t stay healthy, the line needs another year of seasoning and the defense can’t keep up. A 5-3 ACC record and losses to South Carolina and Notre Dame end the Tigers’ four-year streak of double-digit wins.

Bottom line: Talent-wise, Clemson’s the only team in the ACC in Florida State’s class. Watson’s health is too much of a variable to predict the Tigers will unseat the Seminoles. Another 10-2 finish seems about right, although if the stars align, the potential is there for more.

Newcomer to watch: Deon Cain, WR

The state of Florida has been good to Clemson (C.J. Spiller, Sammy Watkins, Artavis Scott) and the Tigers might have another gem in Cain, who’s from Tampa and is the No. 17 recruit in the country according to Rivals.

Cain (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) played quarterback most of his high school career, but his athletic ability is off the charts.

Schedule

Sept. 5 Wofford

Sept. 12 Appalachian State

Sept. 17 at Louisville

Sept. 26 OPEN

Oct. 3 Notre Dame

Oct. 10 Georgia Tech

Oct. 17 Boston College

Oct. 24 at Miami

Oct. 31 at N.C. State

Nov. 7 Florida State

Nov. 14 at Syracuse

Nov. 21 Wake Forest

Nov. 28 at South Carolina

Schedule analysis

The schedule starts slow enough that Watson probably doesn’t have to rush back. The Tigers actually might be able to make it through September without him.

Georgia Tech, Clemson’s primary partner, is the only ACC team other than Florida State to beat the Tigers over the past three years.

Notre Dame and South Carolina out of the league will be a challenge and the crossover game with Miami could have been easier but the Tigers should be able to win all three.

The home date with Florida State is the big one. The last time FSU went to Death Valley, it left with a 51-14 win.

The Tigers probably won’t be 100 percent focused on Syracuse the week after FSU but the Orange is not good enough to take advantage of that break.

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