CLEMSON — Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris liked just about everything he saw from the Tigers in their first game.
He expects to see much more as the season goes on.
Morris said No. 14 Clemson’s 26-19 victory over Auburn this past Saturday night was nothing more than a strong start to a long season that continues this week with the Tigers’ home opener against Ball State (1-0).
The second-year assistant was pleased with the play of his offensive line, which features three new starters and helped the Tigers rush for 320 yards. Andre Ellington had a career-best 231 yards on the ground and receiver DeAndre Hopkins caught a school-record 13 passes, including the 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put the Tigers up for good.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd did his best job in two years of managing the game and making the right plays when things broke down around him, Morris said.
“All it was a great start,” Morris said Monday. “It was a really good first game and, `Whoop-dee-do,’ now we’ve got to go on to the next one.”
The biggest surprise was the solid performance of the offensive line against Auburn’s more experienced defenders. Converted defender Tyler Shatley, David Beasley and Gifford Timothy all made their first starts for the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions. Tight end Brandon Ford was also taking over for last year’s All-American Dwyane Allen, a third-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts last spring.
There were some bumps – Boyd was sacked four times in the opening half – but the group settled down to anchor a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives.
And few were more surprised at the performance than Morris.
“There were some times in fall camp, it was pretty intense” searching to fill out the line alongside returning starters, center Dalton Freeman and tackle Brandon Thompson, the coach said.
Morris was particularly pleased with the group’s communication at executing Clemson’s fast-paced schemes. The Tigers snapped the ball 92 times against Auburn and Morris said the lineman kept pushing to go faster. There were more knockdowns than Morris had seen in his two seasons at Clemson.
“I think we all saw the same thing,” Morris said, “but we’re not ready to name them the seven blocks of granite.”
In addition to the solid line play, Ball State coach Pete Lembo said his Mid-American Conference squad will have a challenge handling Clemson’s skill players.
“They’ve got a bunch of dynamic athletes as displayed last Saturday night on TV,” he said.
One of those is Boyd.
Morris liked that the junior quarterback kept his mistakes to a minimum and used his running skills to make plays, something he didn’t do much in 2011. Boyd finished with 58 yards rushing, well on his way to the goal of 700 he and Morris set before the year.
“This is a stepping stone,” Boyd said. “We’ve got to keep building off of it.”
Boyd completed 24 of 34 passes for 208 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
The one troubling aspect for Morris was the play of Clemson’s receivers, who did not have suspended star Sammy Watkins available. Ford had several significant drops as did Hopkins. Morris said Hopkins needed to impact the game more without the ball.
“It won’t be a bed of roses for them this week,” Morris said.
Then again, the receivers might get another week to work out there issues if Ellington plays the way he did in the opener. Twice, Ellington kept his balance and turned apparent short gains into much longer plays when Auburn defenders didn’t finish off tackles.
Running backs coach Tony Elliott saw a fire in Ellington’s eyes before the game that he knew meant big things ahead for the Tigers senior.
“This is a statement season for me,” Ellington said. “I came back to prove I’m a guy that go the long distance. As long as I stay healthy, I’ve got an opportunity to do so.”
Morris said he’s willing to give Ellington the ball even more than the 26 carries he got against Auburn.
“Whatever it takes to win the game,” Morris said.
That might get tricky when Watkins returns from his two-game suspension for an offseason drug arrest. Watkins caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman and will again be a major focus of Morris’ attack.
It’s a good problem to have, since Morris said the Tigers “can do better.”