If quarterback Cole Stoudt, running back D.J. Howard or any other Clemson player walks to class, and the student directly behind him can see the book cradled in his arm, offensive coordinator Chad Morris might hand out a demerit.
The Tigers will stop at nothing to stop the biggest culprit marring each of Clemson’s painful defeats in recent years.
“Most big games you lose, it’s because of fumbles or turnovers,” Stoudt said. “It’s something in coach (Dabo) Swinney’s formula: Win the turnover margin. That’s something we’ve always stressed.”
Whatever it takes. It’s no small stuff, dissecting the glaring issues plaguing the defeated version of the uber-successful Tigers in recent years.
In 11 wins in 2013, Clemson committed 14 turnovers; in losses to Florida State and South Carolina, 10 momentum-killing turnovers.
But it goes both ways. The defense is also to blame, because it’s not just the turnovers. It’s what happens after them.
After those 14 turnovers in wins, Clemson allowed 16 points; after those 10 turnovers in losses, Clemson allowed 45 points.
“What you do is you respond,” Swinney said. “When you have a mistake, you’ve got to make it up somewhere.”
It hasn’t happened against the chief rival. Tracking the five-game losing streak to USC, the Gamecocks have scored 62 points off turnovers while the Tigers have scored none.
“I can tell you one thing: that’s a recipe for disaster,” Swinney said. “We’ve been really poor in the turnover margin the last couple years against them. It’s hard to win when you do that. We’ve got to correct that.”
Last year, Clemson committed six turnovers against South Carolina, and lost by 14 points.
“You can’t turn the ball over and lose the number of possessions that we lost, and turn the ball over on special teams,” Morris said in mid-July, still steaming over the unforced errors. “We just haven’t performed like we’ve need to perform consistently in that (USC) game.”
Tight end Stanton Seckinger fumbled on the first play from scrimmage against Florida State. Three plays later, the Seminoles were in the end zone. Later in the first quarter, Tajh Boyd gave up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. FSU led 17-0 and Death Valley was deflated.
“Adrenaline was flowing, we were ready to go, but after that first turnover, it determined the outcome of the game,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “Our team just went downhill.”
In life after Boyd, Roderick McDowell and Sammy Watkins, Morris’ methods haven’t changed for Stoudt, Howard and Mike Williams in his fourth year guiding the offense.
“Day One,” Stoudt said, “he walked in here, and he said we’re going to have great ball security.”
Those are the words – ball security – Morris prefers to turnovers. More of a positive inflection.
“That’s a part of the game everybody can coach,” Morris said. “If the O-line coach sees the quarterback with poor ball security, he can address that right then to that guy. That’s everybody being held accountable. Ball security’s huge.”
Morris tracks “balls in jeopardy” based on practice tape; with video cameras surrounding the Tigers’ practice facility, he and his staff can see shoddy ball security at any time.
“If we’re running, and the camera from behind can see the ball from underneath their arm, that’s a ball in jeopardy,” Stoudt said. “Somebody can come up and knock the ball out, so you’ve got to keep your elbow tucked so no one can pound it out.”
You won’t see Stoudt channel his inner Johnny Manziel with his flailing, improvisational ways. Stoudt intends to be even more conservative than Boyd, who was never shy to take a chance.
“We want to reduce our turnovers we’ve had over the years,” Stoudt said. “This year we’re going to focus on it even more, making sure people are keeping that ball tucked away or not throwing a ball into a dangerous situation, and just making the right reads and being smart with the ball.”
Contrasting Morris’ ball security, defensive coordinator Brent Venables preaches ball disruption. He wants his blitzers getting their hands up, rushers in the throwing lanes, defensive backs hawking the football whether in the air or in a ball-carrier’s grasp.
“Nothing more important than that ball and getting it back,” Venables said. “There’s a lot of things that parlay into forcing turnovers and big plays, and disrupting the flow of an offense.”
“Whenever you’re rushing the passer,” said Beasley, who had 13 sacks in 2013, “you want to come around him with a swipe, try to knock the ball out. That’s definitely our first instinct when you’re rushing the passer trying to get the sack.”