By Norm Wood
7:41 AM AKST, November 28, 2012
As if being referred to as "fat boy" by an ex-teammate wasn't bad enough, the full visual impact of his girth from last season hit home for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd before the end of this past summer.
Boyd was checking his Twitter account when a message from a fan caught his attention. The comment was well-intended, but it ended up something closer to a backhanded compliment:
"I just saw Tajh. He looks really slim. It's going to be a great season if he keeps his weight down."
Boyd, a graduate of Phoebus High, knew he was way out of his comfort zone last year when he ballooned to nearly 240 pounds in the second half of the season. Yet, he didn't realize fans and observers outside of the team knew he'd put on 15 to 20 pounds.
"I didn't know it was that noticeable, and that big of a deal at the same time," said Boyd, who will lead Clemson (5-1 overall, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) when the Tigers host Virginia Tech next Saturday afternoon. "That put it in perspective.
"That's one of the things you never want to hear as a competitor, that there's some kind of complacency factor. It's the fact that people think you're not being as dedicated or focused as you need to be."
An offseason of dieting and workouts often two or three times a day got Boyd back down to 220, and opened up a dimension of his game that was present only randomly last season. Now, he can beat defenses with his arm and his legs.
That's exactly what offensive coordinator Chad Morris was looking for.
"To get to where we want to be as an offensive unit, he's got to be able to be a (running) threat," Morris said. "Everybody knows that Tajh Boyd will run the football. We've got called, designed runs for him, and then there's reads for him, and then there's times that, 'You know what? We called a play, they called a good defense, you've got to get us right.' All the great ones do it, and that's what he's striving for."
The read-option has become one of Clemson's most effective play calls this season, with Boyd using it to amass a good chunk of his 224 rushing yards (6 more than he had all last season). Boyd's improved decision-making has been the primary reason for the success of the read-option.
"On offense, that's one of the biggest areas of improvement this year," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Boyd's decision-making. "That was one of the worst things he did last year. It's not really visible to the naked eye, but it's very visible to us because we know what he's supposed to be doing. Last year, he was handing it when he was supposed to be keeping it and keeping it when he was supposed to be handing it.
"He was very inconsistent with his footwork and very undisciplined with his eyes and not fully committed to that part of his game. That's where he was challenged big-time in the offseason. He's still got a lot of things he's got to get better at, but he's greatly improved from where he was last year, especially the last five or six games of the season."
Boyd, a 6-foot-1 junior, hasn't lost his ability to get the ball downfield through the air -- even though he hasn't had his top wide receiver for half of Clemson's games.
Boyd has completed 137 of 201 passes (68 percent) for 1,748 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's averaging a career-high 8.7 yards per pass attempt, despite missing anticipated top target Sammy Watkins for three games. Watkins sat out the first two games due to a suspension, and two weeks ago he missed Clemson's game against Boston College with an abdominal virus.
With Watkins out, receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been Boyd's go-to man. Hopkins has 49 catches for 777 yards, which led the nation entering Saturday's games, and eight touchdowns.
"When (Watkins) first got the suspension, it was a tough situation, but looking back through the summer, it might've been one of the best things for us," said Boyd, who has completed greater than 63 percent of his passes in every game this season other than Clemson's 49-37 loss at Florida State (55.6 percent). "So many guys got experience. It made those other guys know that whatever they do is vital to this offense."
Boyd also has surpassed Charlie Whitehurst for the school career mark in touchdown passes with 51. It's an achievement made even more impressive considering Boyd has gotten the record in just 763 passes, while Whitehurst had 50 touchdown passes in 1,368 attempts.
Boyd's effectiveness this season has represented a nice bounce-back for a guy who struggled in the late stages last season. After helping lead Clemson to an 8-0 start last season by passing for 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions, the Tigers finished 2-4 with Boyd throwing nine touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Making matters worse, Boyd's weight gain during the season limited what he was capable of doing in Clemson's running game. It also earned him the nickname "fat boy" from former Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen.
"That kept sticking with me the whole time last season," Boyd said.
With fried foods and midnight snacking a thing of the past, Boyd has his eyes directed toward the future. Though he said he'd probably have to leave Clemson early if he was projected to be a first-round draft pick in 2013, that's highly unlikely, considering he's looked at by most draft analysts as somewhere around the eighth-to-10th-best quarterback available for the '14 draft.
For now, his immediate goals don't stray too far from what he can get done in Clemson's Death Valley.
"I want to help this team achieve to the point where we're national title contenders," Boyd said. "I feel like we're going to have the team to do that, but it's a process."