CLEMSON, S.C. — To explain the rich vein of athletes mined from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia this generation would require a deep, almost mystical blend of genealogy, sociology and psychology.
Why there, now?
Football — quarterbacks of late — tends to predominate discussions, though the Virginia Tidewater has been a fertile source for baseball and basketball, too.
Tajh Boyd contends that Allen Iverson, an 11-time NBA all-star, was the best high school quarterback Virginia produced — not Michael Vick nor Ronald Curry, both of whom he idolized.
“You’d hear about all those guys, and you’d want to push yourself because you wanted to be ‘that guy’ when they talked about the best quarterback,” Boyd said. “You wanted your name to be right at the top.”
Entering Monday night’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, he has thrust his name into the conversation after a season in which he was named:
Yet still there are times Boyd must feel as if he’s swimming against the tide. ESPN listed him the No. 8 quarterback in the nation, and Mel Kiper Jr. doesn’t include him as a one of the five best juniors.
“I don’t know anybody who’s playing better than Tajh Boyd,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “This guy is a special player. He’s a winner. He has fun. He’s fun to be around. He makes big plays. He makes it look easy. He’s done some things all year that are mind-boggling to me.”
During his senior season at Phoebus High School, Boyd played on a torn knee ligament that required a bulky brace. Nobody outside his immediate family, coach and doctors knew the extent of the injury, which would require surgery before he could even think about running down the hill at Clemson.
One of the nation’s top five prospects at quarterback in 2008 according to ESPN and Rivals, Boyd committed to West Virginia in March before his senior year. Among the quarterbacks with him at the Elite 11 camp in Los Angeles that summer were future SEC standouts A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger.
Boyd switched his commitment to Tennessee midway through the season and was willing to stick with the Vols after Phil Fulmer was fired until Lane Kiffin snubbed him. Kiffin never spoke to Boyd, telling his father he would honor the scholarship even though Boyd didn’t figure in the Vols’ plans.
After Boyd, on that gimpy knee, led Phoebus to a Virginia state championship, he reopened recruiting. Ohio State and Oregon were the next options until Clemson intervened shortly before the U.S. Army all-star game in Texas.
Tim and Carla Boyd had decided they would leave their gritty neighborhood of Virginia Beach and follow their son wherever he landed. Five years earlier, they had visited Clemson on a lark during a trip home from a family reunion, so they were easily sold on the small town in the Blue Ridge foothills.
By the time he enrolled at Clemson, Boyd said, too many of his friends in Hampton Roads had died.
“They didn’t even get a chance to get started,” he said. “They took the wrong path, hung with the wrong crowd. I thought I was being sheltered, but I think my parents did a really good job with me. So many players I grew up with didn’t make it because they didn’t have anyone to lean on.”
Boyd smiles — a lot. It’s a genuine, incandescent smile.
His father taught him football by reading and watching video of the great quarterbacks and encouraging him when his coaches wouldn’t. The smile came from his mother, a warm, open woman with a big heart.
“A lot of coaches didn’t believe in him and had him playing different positions,” Carla Boyd recalled. “He always wanted to be a quarterback, but he played linebacker, receiver, running back, lineman. You name it, he played it. I was a little verbal back then because I was trying to help him fight for a position because he liked throwing the ball.”
After a year at Landstown High, Boyd’s family moved to Hampton so he could play for Phoebus coach Bill Dee. With Boyd at quarterback, Phoebus won state championships his junior and senior years. After winning co-MVP honors at the Army All-America game, he had surgery on the knee, then signed with Clemson, which already had two former Elite 11 quarterbacks, Willy Korn and Kyle Parker.
Parker, also a promising baseball player, beat out Korn that spring while splitting time between sports. Korn, backup to senior Cullen Harper the previous year, decided by midseason to transfer but remained on the roster while Boyd continued to rehab the knee and acclimate to Clemson and its slower, rural pace.
Boyd had visions of starting as a redshirt freshman after Parker was drafted in the first round as an outfielder by the Colorado Rockies. But Clemson had come within a touchdown of its first ACC championship in nearly two decades the previous year, so Parker decided to play one more season of football. Boyd spent the season as his backup. In retrospect it was probably for the best, even after Parker suffered a broken rib at Auburn that limited him all season.
In a glimpse of the future, Boyd came off the bench in the fourth quarter of the Meineke Car Care Bowl to throw two touchdown passes.
Swinney fired offensive coordinator Billy Napier after the season and hired Chad Morris. A successful Texas high school coach, Morris won a state championship at Austin Lake Travis with Gale Gilbert, another of Boyd’s campmates at Elite 11.
Morris found immediate success in one year at Tulsa with a version of the fast-paced spread scheme he learned from Gus Malzahn, the offensive mind during Auburn’s run to the BCS title.
Boyd and Morris seemed to bond easily. In their first season together, Clemson set school records for touchdowns and total points, and Boyd set school records for completions, total offense, passing yardage and TD passes.
Clemson was 8-0 and No. 6 in the BCS when the season began to implode with a loss at Georgia Tech. While his team lost four of its last six, including a 70-33 thrashing by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, Boyd was intercepted nine times.
Boyd admitted later that the team got caught up in the hype. He also ate himself into a slump, weighing 240 pounds when the team played South Carolina in the season finale.
Two of the things Morris asked Boyd to work on during the offseason were accuracy on deep throws and versatility as a runner. Last season, Boyd rushed for 462 yards, minus the 229 yards on 33 sacks. Morris said Boyd resembled a garden statue.
Boyd attended the George Whitfield Quarterback Academy in Palo Alto, Calif., during spring break and worked on throwing on the run, ball security, game management and pocket presence. He and Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones worked in the morning, then watched Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the afternoon.
After a diet all spring and summer and hours with the Clemson strength and conditioning team, Boyd reported to camp nearly 20 pounds lighter. His mother was impressed. After raising him on fried chicken and sweet potato pie, she said he cut out most of the fried foods and sweets. The result was evident with 58 rushing yards in the win over Auburn to open the season. His best was 103 in an offensive orgy against N.C. State.
Clemson finished sixth in the nation in scoring, ninth in total offense and fourth in passing efficiency, and Boyd enters the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU fourth nationally in passing efficiency and No. 8 in total offense. He has completed 251 of 377 passes for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns and has rushed for 706 yards, second highest on the team — minus the 214 for sacks — for nine more touchdowns. His combined 43 touchdowns are an Atlantic Coast Conference record.
“He’s probably the most accurate deep ball passer that I’ve ever been around,” Morris said. “Maybe that I’ve ever seen.”
Boyd and Morris are close. When the coach was looking at jobs recently, he kept the quarterback in the loop. Boyd wasn’t eager to go to Atlanta without Morris, facing an LSU defense that’s easily the best he’s seen this year, especially after the fourth straight loss to South Carolina.
“This is a chance to redeem ourselves, a chance to go out there and prove that we can compete,” Boyd said. “There’s a sour taste from the last game. We want to do something about it.
“I think it would be a major step forward for this program. I think it’s a momentum game for us heading into the offseason, and I think it’s a program boost and builder and it would look really good on our résumé.”
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