The play-calling psychology of Chad Morris: does the Clemson offensive coordinator lack patience?

NORTHWESTERN COMMAND – I hope everyone had a great holiday, but alas it is back to work for many of us including the data-collecting elves at Northwestern Command ….

In the summer before Kevin Steele’s final year as a defensive coordinator at Clemson, I sat down with him to learn more about the the art of play-calling.

Steele had some interesting things to say, including insights on creating psychological profiles of opposing playcallers:

“I never battle a gut feeling,” Steele says. “An example would be one of the most respected guys I ever called a game against, (former Maryland head coach) Ralph Friedgen. I’ve watched him enough, I know his personality. It doesn’t matter what the numbers say in this situation, he is getting ready to break his tendencies. People think it is just Xs and Os, but you have to get inside the opposing play-caller’s head.”

Steele would watch video of six or seven games chronologically on Sundays to learn more about the personality of a playcaller — under what circumstances would an opposing coordinator divert from typical down-and-distance tendencies? (Clemson has statistical spreadsheets of all opposing tendencies).

One reason Steele walked the sideline during games is to study opposing coordinators. On the field he could better read body language, better sense his adversary’s temperament.

“There’s one particular play-caller in the ACC who doesn’t take risks when he has you rolling. He takes risks when you are stoning him,” Steele says. “When he gets frustrated, he does something out of the norm. You kind of watch on the sideline, and when you start seeing this (Steele throws his arms down in frustration) you know he is getting ready to do something wild.”

Steele is not the only opposing coach to try to better understand opposing playcallers. So you can be sure opponents are trying to learn more about Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ personality. He is the most important game-day coach at Clemson.

And I wonder if they’ve come to this conclusion: Morris will become impatient and abandon the running game and his typical play-calling tendencies IF the scoreboard starts to turn against Clemson.

Does Chad Morris take the ball away from Andre Ellington too early in games?

The evidence?

Clemson has lost two games this season and in each game Morris went away from featuring Andre Ellington (more on this tomorrow in the dead-tree edition of the Post and Courier).

Exhibit A: Clemson took over the ball with 6:15 to play in the third quarter at Florida State and holding a 31-28 lead. Ellington rushed the ball just four times over the game’s remaining 21 minutes.

Exhibit B: Against South Carolina, Ellington rushed the ball four times in the second half, even though Clemson had run the ball effectively the entire game — averaging 6.1 yards per carry when taking away sack yardage. QB Tajh Boyd was under constant duress in the second half. Contrast this to Clemson’s 16-play TD drive against South Carolina, Ellington rushed six times, including four times on first downs for 23 yards giving Clemson advantageous down-and-distance situations.

So in final combined 51 minutes against South Carolina and Florida State, Ellington combined for eight carries.

Exhibit C: Clemson was 8-0 in 2011 in games where Andre Ellington received 15+ carries. Clemson was 2-4 in games when Ellington received fewer than 15 carries (though this was mostly due to injury).


Morris has had a great run as Clemson’s offensive coordinator.

Clemson is ninth in the nation in total yards this season. Morris has become the nation’s highest paid coordinator. The Tigers are 20-6 with Morris running the offense. We’ve often written glowingly of Morris in this space.

But we’re all human, and humans (outside perhaps Andrew Luck and Abraham Lincoln) and  have flaws. And I wonder if Morris reverts to putting too much on his quarterback when the scorebard begins to turn against Clemson as it was in the second half at Florida State and against South Carolina.

This is important because Clemson can’t afford to be one-dimensional against LSU. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will make life difficult for Tajh Boyd.

Morris knows the importance of Ellington. He called him his top recruit of 2012 when he helped convince the Berkeley High product return for his senior season. And in the last game of his college career I think it’s important Morris build his gameplan around, and be patient with, perhaps Clemson’s most important player, Ellington.

4 thoughts on “The play-calling psychology of Chad Morris: does the Clemson offensive coordinator lack patience?

    • JP,

      Agreed. It made sense to manage Ellington’s workload during the course of the season, but workload should not be a concern Monday. It’s Ellington’s last college game, and I think it would be wise to try to get him 25 touches.

      Balance, balance, balance is the key for Clemson.

  1. I constantly see references in articles to Clemson’s national offensive rankings. It seems to me that they are meaningless since they were mostly run up against inferior ACC competition and teams like Furman and Auburn. Against teams with good defenses, i.e., Florida State and South Carolina, they aren’t that good. Am I the only person who feels this way?

    • Richard, it would be interesting to have nationally adjusted stats for strength of defenses played.

      There’s no doubt Clemson’s offensive numbers would be suppressed playing in the SEC. But relative to the ACC, and the majority of the country, Clemson does have one of the better offenses around.

      (Clemson did put up solid numbers against Florida State)

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