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May 19, 2011
Clemson's offense last season often seemed as flat as a month-old Pepsi.
The Tigers ranked 86th nationally in scoring (24.0) and 88th in yards per game (334.6) while going 6-7, their first losing season since 1998. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney responded by firing offensive coordinator Billy Napier and replacing him with no-huddle proponent Chad Morris, whose offense typically moves at a breakneck pace that reflects his own meteoric rise.
Morris likes to drink a Red Bull before each practice (though he abstains before games), and his mission is to reinvigorate Clemson's dormant offense.
"He's so energetic," Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd says. "I feel like I need a Red Bull."
Morris prefers a no-huddle, spread-style offense. But he often uses two-back sets, and contrary to popular belief, it's not a pass-happy offense. Morris spent the 2010 season as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa, which ran the ball more than half the time and was the only FBS team to rank in the top 15 nationally in passing offense and rushing offense.
His offense is built on creating as many scoring opportunities as possible by increasing the snap total. Tulsa averaged 77.4 offensive plays from scrimmage last season, which tied for sixth among all FBS teams and was nine snaps above the national average. Clemson averaged 66.6 snaps.
"The toughest part is guys understanding the pace we want them to play at," Morris says. "That alone has been the toughest part of it, but that's been the part that's surprised me the most. They've grasped it. I'm very pleased with the pace they're playing at."
Morris, 42, has moved up the coaching ladder at a similarly fast pace. Only two years ago, he was a high school coach; now he's the offensive coordinator for a major-conference program.
Not too long ago, Morris' rapid ascent would have seemed like a once-in-a-generation type of story. But this type of move has become increasingly common.
Former Stephenville (Texas) High coach Art Briles joined Texas Tech's staff in 2000, took over as Houston's coach three years later and now runs Baylor's program. Arkansas' hiring of former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn in 2006 received plenty of scrutiny at the time. Four seasons later, Malzahn won a national championship ring as Auburn's offensive coordinator and turned down a lucrative offer to become Vanderbilt's coach.
Morris is well-aware of these success stories. Morris coached Stephenville four years after Briles' departure. And when Morris decided to start utilizing the hurry-up offense as a high school coach, he learned the ins-and-outs of the attack by watching Malzahn's teams. The two remain good friends, which should add intrigue to Auburn's Sept. 17 game at Clemson.
"I take great pride in having been a high school coach," says Morris, who won three state titles and posted a 169-38 record in 16 seasons at five Texas high schools. "I'm excited about the opportunity.
"There are a lot of great high school coaches out there right now who could do exactly what I'm doing and who just haven't had the opportunity or haven't had the breaks I've gotten. I'm just fortunate."
Briles, Malzahn and Morris run no-huddle, spread-style offenses, and they made their successful transitions just as the spread began to take over the college game.
Morris wasn't always a spread disciple, and he doesn't like the term because of its pass-happy overtones. He won the first of his state championships
Morris learned in those two lean years that the game of football was changing, and he figured he had to change along with it.
"I had a situation where we didn't make the playoffs [at Stephenville] and I knew I had to change my system," Morris says. "Was I afraid? No. I knew this was the right thing to do. I knew if it didn't work out, it might cost me my job at Stephenville. But I was confident."
Stephenville went 43-6 over the next four seasons before Morris moved on to Austin (Texas) Lake Travis. He spent two seasons at Lake Travis, which went 32-0 and won two 4A state championships in his tenure.
Lake Travis' 2008 team featured quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who would sign with Texas as the No. 18 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. The 2009 Lake Travis team finished second in the Rivals 100 national rankings.
"I always felt like we had a schematic advantage," Gilbert said in an interview conducted via email. "I felt very confident in our personnel, but especially because it was my senior year and I was able to sit in on a lot of game-planning meetings with him and our offensive coordinator, and I felt like he really understood the game very well. Plus, he's a great play-caller."
Morris' success resulted in multiple offers from college programs. The most persistent suitor was Tulsa's Todd Graham, a former high school coach in his own right who had hired Malzahn as an offensive coordinator before the 2007 season.
"Chad had never coached in college and had been a career high school guy, but he had studied underneath our system," says Graham, now the coach at Pittsburgh. "He's a guy I knew loved kids and believed in our philosophy on how we were going to work and interact with kids, and he's a winner."
Labeling Morris as a bright college coaching prospect was the easy part. Graham had a much tougher time persuading Morris to leave high school coaching. Morris didn't agree to move to Tulsa until the third time Graham offered him a job.
"I wanted to be at a place where I could make a difference in a kid's life and make an impact," Morris says. "I felt that was the case in Austin. He just convinced me, 'Hey, you can make a difference in kids' lives at the college level.' I just had to trust him."
Graham understood Morris' reluctance. After all, Graham also initially hesitated when he first received a similar offer. Graham was a successful coach at Allen (Texas) High when Rich Rodriguez offered him an opportunity to join his West Virginia staff as linebackers coach in 2001.
"I knew how hard it was for me," Graham says. "When Coach Rodriguez got me to leave high school to come to West Virginia, it was not easy for me because when you're a high school coach, you love your kids and love your community. It was very difficult.
"It was not something I saw myself doing, and Chad didn't either. I just tried to be patient with him like Rich was with me."
Graham's patience paid off. Tulsa won at least 10 games and led the nation in total offense in each of Malzahn's two seasons at the school but slipped to 5-7 after he left for Auburn in 2009. With Morris on board last season, Tulsa went 10-3 and once again boasted one of the nation's most potent offenses.
The Golden Hurricane ranked fifth nationally in yards per game (505.6) and sixth in scoring (41.38). Tulsa scored at least 52 points in four of its last seven games, including a 62-35 rout of Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
"I had watched the Hawaii Bowl, not thinking anything about it, and I saw all the points they were scoring and how quick it was," Boyd says. "I was thinking, 'This is exactly what we need as a program.' "
Swinney agreed, and after Clemson lost 31-26 to USF in the Meineke Car Care Bowl a week later to cap its disappointing season, Swinney decided he didn't merely need to switch coordinators. He wanted to change the scheme.
Swinney believed Morris' system was an ideal fit for Boyd, a former four-star prospect entering his first season as a starter. Swinney also figured this type of scheme could work particularly well in the ACC, which largely has been immune thus far to the national trend toward hurry-up offenses.
"I feel like the personnel we have and the personnel we are recruiting would really fit this system well," Swinney says. "It's really what I wanted to do. I felt like we'd be able to be a little unique in this conference playing a fast tempo, spreading the field and making people defend every patch of grass that's out there."
This move comes at a critical time in Swinney's tenure. Swinney just signed the nation's eighth-ranked recruiting class
His future could depend on whether Clemson makes a successful transition to Morris' scheme. But Morris seems unbothered by that potential burden.
"It's a great situation," Morris says. "There's not going to be any more pressure on me than I put on myself."
Morris isn't the one to feel pressure. He's too busy making sure his offense applies it.