During its first eight games last season, Clemson had one of college football’s most efficient and explosive offenses.
In offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ high-paced spread attack, the Tigers scored points in bunches, had few penalties and even fewer turnovers.
Clemson had only eight turnovers and averaged fewer than four penalties in its first eight games, helping it start 8-0 and climb to No. 5 in the Bowl Championship Series standings after a 59-38 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 22.
Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd isn’t quite sure what happened over the next six games. The Tigers lost four of their last six contests and finished 10-4, turning the ball over 16 times and averaging more than five penalties per contest.
Clemson had four turnovers and six penalties in a forgettable 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl on Jan. 4.
“You start to get a little too comfortable and start to listen to the things that didn’t get you to that point,” Boyd said. “I think we got a little complacent. We thought we could walk into any stadium in the country and win because we were 8-0 and No. 5 in the country.”
If the Tigers are going to finish stronger in 2012, Morris said his quarterback has to play with more consistency. Boyd, a junior from Hampton, Va., completed 61.8 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in the first eight games of 2011. He threw for nine touchdowns with nine interceptions in the final six contests.
Morris is preaching consistency and finishing to his quarterback and offense heading into Saturday’s spring game at Memorial Stadium.
“I think he has to be more consistent,” Morris said. “The first eight games, he was really confident on offense and was picking up first downs with his legs. You could sense he was just playing ball and playing with a lot of confidence. The last six games, we weren’t nearly as consistent. He wasn’t consistent, so the whole group wasn’t consistent. His footwork was really sloppy.”
Boyd said he gained about eight pounds over the course of the 2011 season, which led to fatigue and made him less willing to run. He currently weighs about 225 pounds and hopes to be down to 218 by the start of the season.
“In a 12-game season, you might lose a step here or there,” Boyd said. “I was trying to force passes and hit the big ball too much. I wasn’t taking what the defense gave me and wasn’t working within the system.”
It didn’t help that star receiver Sammy Watkins was banged up at the end of the 2011 season. Watkins, from Fort Myers, Fla., had a sensational freshman season, with 82 catches for 1,219 yards with 12 touchdowns. But he caught only 28 passes and three touchdowns in the last six games.
Morris said Watkins worked to get stronger in the offseason, in hopes of avoiding injuries and increasing his endurance.
“If you look at last year, we started football on Aug. 2, and by the time Nov. 4 rolled around, we started hitting our skid,” Morris said. “In high school, Sammy’s season was already over. The mental grind really took its toll on him.”
It took its toll on many of the other Tigers, too.
“We didn’t finish the way we started and that was mainly because of turnovers,” center Dalton Freeman said. “We were trying to play outside the system and not how we were coached to play. We paid for it.”
Clemson’s biggest concern in spring practice was rebuilding its offensive line. The Tigers have to replace five senior offensive linemen, including starting left tackle Phillip Price, left guard David Smith and right tackle Landon Walker.
“It’s been really good,” Morris said. “We’ve had some guys come on. It’s been a big improvement athletically from where we were a year ago.”
Freeman, a senior from Pelion, S.C., said the Tigers’ offensive linemen started meeting two or three times per week as soon as the spring semester started. The Tigers had four freshman offensive linemen enroll in classes in January.
“We took a lot of initiative this spring and we met together as a group,” Freeman said. “When you know what you’re doing, you can play with a lot of confidence, and that’s half the battle. We just felt like knowledge was key. When we go out there, we can work on technique and getting better, instead of having to coach everybody on what to do.”
It’s up to the Tigers to finish the 2012 season like they started 2011.