ATLANTA — At one point during the NFL Draft build-up that has consumed Tajh Boyd’s public life since leaving Miami Gardens, Fla., the site of the Clemson Tigers’ Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State in January, he stood at a standard dry-erase board and asked for advice. He felt he needed a better understanding of NFL coverages.
His quarterbacks coach, Ken Mastrole, a former college quarterback at Maryland and Rhode Island, sketched out a coverage scheme on the board. Boyd looked confused. Mastrole, who worked with the first quarterback taken in the 2013 draft, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, may have thought he’d stumped his 6-foot-1 pupil who broke every major Clemson passing record in his five years on campus. But Boyd’s confusion did not stem from a lack of comprehension on how to attack the devised coverage but rather because he didn’t understand why the supposed complexity of the NFL defense was not, in his eyes, all that complex.
"What are you talking about?" Boyd asked Mastrole. "It’s right there."
He still says he gets it, that he’s ready.
It’s all right there for Boyd. He’s just a month away from hearing his name called in the NFL Draft, the football dream come to life. He’s almost finished with the event’s build-up — referred to endlessly as "the process" — and there are parts he’s enjoyed, others he’d prefer to tune out. His detractors consistently return to his days at Clemson, regularly ignoring statistics and accolades and focusing in on the age-old checklist items: size, physical tools and how will offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ offensive schemes and reads translate on the next level.
A few years ago, the Tigers’ high-scoring attack, which relies on pace (81.5 plays per game in 2013), quick reads and putting its best players in space, might have been considered "gimmick", but even with the evolution of the read-option and the blurring lines between NFL and college playbooks, there’s still the matter of translation. How will Boyd adjust? How does he project? Can he go through his progressions, finding the third and fourth options, at an acceptable rate? Did Morris’ system prepare him for the quick decision-making that is absolutely vital at the sports’ highest level?
Boyd has heard every question — at the NFL Combine, in media interviews, reading newspaper clippings — and that line of thinking led him to ask Mastrole to draw something up on that board. But he understood it; he believes that he eventually will grasp everything thrown his way.
"You actually get fed all the stuff from the outside sources saying, ‘You don’t know as much as you think you know.’ But when we actually sit down and write things down, there’s not even a lot that we necessarily need to learn about this system. We know everything about our system," said Boyd, who was in town to film "The Panel," FOX Sports South’s draft prospect show. "We know more things than we thought we knew heading into this process. … It’s like, you start to think that (NFL schemes) are over your head a little bit because you’ve got all these different thoughts being put into you. But it’s been kinda funny to see how that works out.
"Sometimes the media thinks a player knows more just because it looks more complex, when in actuality the best part about playing in the system that we played in and being so successful is that we’ve seen everything. We’ve seen every coverage. We’ve seen every type of coordinator and how they’re going to adjust to it."
In the latest mock drafts, which, granted, can fluctuate from week to week, Boyd is generally projected to be a second-day pick. That can be a tough pill to swallow for the ACC’s all-time touchdown leader who was projected as a potential first-round pick just a year ago, but that’s the consensus opinion. In the official NFL Combine rundown on Boyd, his perceived weaknesses include:
Boyd completed his redshirt senior year with 11,904 career passing yards and 133 total touchdowns to 39 interceptions — making him arguably the most productive quarterback in conference history, a league that has produced Manuel, Philip Rivers and, to some extent, Russell Wilson (played senior year at Wisconsin) over the past decade or so — but his troubles this offseason really began to take shape in the Senior Bowl, where at least one scout called him "undraftable." Perceptions matters during the process. That evaluation may be ridiculously harsh criticism or a simple smokescreen in the NFL’s season of player-related smokescreens, but Boyd heard it.
After spending years developing a repertoire with NFL-caliber offensive talent Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins (Texans) and Andre Ellington (Cardinals), Boyd can not deny the talent coach Dabo Swinney put around him at Clemson. He wouldn’t want to. But, to him, his struggles down in Mobile, Ala., can also be tracked back to his old teammates, and not just their physical talents: his game is built on timing and communication. In a week-long de facto scouting camp where agents shuffle their prospects in and out, Boyd never found his comfort zone.
"You’ve got so many outside perspectives who aren’t even that in tune to football, who aren’t even that close. You might get one opinion and say, ‘Yeah OK, that sounds good enough to sell papers,’ instead of listening to the whole angle of it," Boyd said. "Like, it’s funny, because people will talk about (my) Senior Bowl and how that went, but they won’t look at a whole career. We had Senior Bowl practices, and I don’t ever make excuses, but you know you lose six receivers throughout the course of practice, when it comes to the game you’ve got a guy who plays here and you flew in two guys from this team or that team the same day of the game, you expect to be successful? It doesn’t really work like that."
It doesn’t, but there’s no changing that now, though. Boyd can only put his best foot forward through the back stretch of this process (mostly through media availability) and hope for the best professional situation possible, more than likely as a backup to kick off his career.
He posted a near-perfect passing performance at Clemson’s Pro Day, logging just one incompletion (Bryant claimed he dropped the ball). He’s stockpiling advice and information from all across the spectrum — one day Ellington, the next former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, the next former QB Kurt Warner — writing everything down and hoping it serves him well in the future. It’s just one of the lessons he picked up along the way since winning two Virginia state titles out of the recruiting hotbed of Hampton Roads: keep track of every tidbit of information, you never know when it could be of use. Maybe training camp, maybe Week 15.
Boyd’s transition, at least in the short-term, extends beyond his physical attributes and ability to identify and exploit a zone blitz. There’s the leadership adjustment as well. Over five years on campus, he took ownership of the Clemson program. Outside of Swinney, he was the face of Tigers football, one of the most popular faces on a campus of 17,000 undergrads. His word, especially as it pertained to younger players in an offense he mastered more and more each season, carried weight. Those days are behind him.
No matter his draft position or signing bonus, Tajh Boyd will walk into an NFL locker room as a rookie in a couple months. A quarterback, the one directing traffic in a huddle, demanding attention, but still a rookie. That’s a shakeup to the typical power structure in the 23-year-old’s football life, and it’s something he’s considered carefully, cautiously.
Tajh Boyd’s mechanics were publicly scrutinzed by various scouts and draft pundits at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in January.
"That’s one of my biggest questions about going to the next level. It’s not about defenses, it’s not about things of that nature. It’s about your role and your representation, because I look at it and you’re fresh out of college and you’re about to walk into a huddle with these guys 30-plus (years old). They’ve got a few kids. They’re not worried about you, you’re just a rookie. How do you handle yourself? Boyd said. "And one of the things that I’ve gotten from a few guys is that when you go in there, you’ve just got to know that there’s a time and a place for everything. You can’t just go out there and demand anything. Your body of work has to speak for itself. The way you work out, the way you prepare. All those things they take into account."
Boyd is harvesting NFL-related information at the moment, but, at the end of the day, not unlike so many great college players, he possesses the confidence that everything will work out. It did in middle school and high school and college. He’s always projected the image of a natural leader, and though the next stage will eventually require production for others to follow, Boyd is trusting that with preparation and hard work everything will fall into place. Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. From his point of view, Tajh Boyd doesn’t have to be anyone but Tajh Boyd.
"There’s no need to go out there and try to overdo things, to be this ‘extra’ person. Just be who you are and (others will) gravitate towards you. If it’s been like throughout your whole career and growing up, it’s not going to change once you get to that level."