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Acc Title, Bcs Bowl "wanted" In Clemson

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff




Greg Wallace
Anderson (S.C.) Independent Mail

August 30, 2007

CLEMSON – If you've attended a Clemson practice this summer, chances are you've seen them.

When Tiger players strip off their shoulder pads after practice, a smelly, sweat-soaked undershirt lies underneath. Its message is impossible to escape, the essence of a program that wants more than it has.

Across the chest, it reads: "Finish the Job." On its back is an old-fashioned Western-style poster, the kind you'd find in a saloon or general store circa 1895. It pictures the Jacksonville, Fla., skyline and says, simply: "Wanted: ACC Championship."

For two years, Clemson has come agonizingly close to making its first ACC title game appearance and moving a step closer toward its first Bowl Championship Series bid.

This year, Tommy Bowden says, is a chance to move forward. A realistic chance? He thinks so.

"I'm not satisfied, but it's not like we're way far off and have to re-invent the wheel," Bowden said. "If I have to be somewhere other than the champion, I'd rather be real close. Where that is, I don't know."

Bowden and the Tigers have turned close-but-not-quite into an art form the past two years.

In 2006, they suffered a 34-33 double-overtime loss at Boston College that was sealed when Jad Dean's extra point was blocked in double OT. A 13-12 loss to Maryland might not have happened if not for a 12-men-on-the-field penalty that called back a fourth-quarter touchdown. The Tigers settled for a Dean field goal and a 12-10 lead rather than a 16-10 lead; the Terrapins then drove down the field and nailed a game-winning field goal as time expired. Take either of those losses away, and the Tigers – not Wake Forest – would have represented the Atlantic Division in Jacksonville.

Erase a 10-9 loss at Georgia Tech, and 2006 would have ended the same way.

So Bowden and the Tigers are close. But is that good enough?

The disappointing 1-4 finish in 2006 (capped off by a Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky), which followed a 7-1 start and run to a top-10 ranking, placed Bowden firmly back on the proverbial "hot seat."

SI.com national college football writer Stewart Mandel recently rated Bowden the third-worst coach with at least three years in his current job in college football. Bowden's bosses aren't exactly throwing hosannas his way, either. In January, Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips revealed that the university has enough in its "rainy day" fund to pay Bowden's $2.5 million contract buyout. The contract has four years left, and pays him $1.1 million per year. But after 2009, the buyout drops to $500,000.

If Bowden doesn't receive a contract extension after this season, his status almost certainly will be used against him on the recruiting trail. He wasn't concerned about not getting an extension after last season, but if he does well this year without Clemson stepping forward?

"You've got another whole conversation then," Bowden said.

The play of new starting quarterback Cullen Harper and a rebuilt offensive line will go a long way toward determining whether Bowden gets a new deal.

Clemson's offense ground to a halt down the stretch in 2006 after quarterback Will Proctor was exposed as a poor passer. After Virginia Tech stacked the line against talented tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Proctor was forced to throw and went 11-of-28 for 86 yards with an interception.

Harper has a stronger throwing arm than Proctor and has gained the confidence of his teammates. Although he's never started a college game, he relishes the opportunity.

"I'm really excited," he said. "When I signed on to play at Clemson, I came to be the starting quarterback, and that's my role right now. I'm really excited about it and looking forward to it."

How long he hangs onto it depends on how well the offense performs around him. Freshman backup Willy Korn is one of the Tigers' most hyped recruits ever, with a strong arm and excellent athletic ability. He graduated from high school early to go through spring practice at Clemson, and went from No. 4 to No. 2 on the depth chart in 15 practices.

Bowden said Harper's work ethic kept him ahead of Korn this summer.

"We have a pretty demanding summer work schedule from a skills standpoint, throwing and catching," Bowden said. "When you've got an edge coming out of the spring, if you slow down a little bit, the other guy will catch you. Cullen continued to work extremely hard and remained a little ahead."

Harper's protection is another question mark. Senior left tackle Barry Richardson is a preseason All-American, but beyond him, the Tigers have only 10 games of starting experience on the roster – five games from senior left guard Chris McDuffie and five from senior right guard Brandon Pilgrim. And Pilgrim isn't expected to start; he was passed in August practice by talented sophomore right guard Thomas Austin.

Sophomore center Barry Humphries will be a first-time starter, as will be fifth-year senior right tackle Christian Capote.

"We've had these kids in our program for three years," offensive line coach Brad Scott said. "But you give up the experience factor, and there's a big price to be paid for that. The toughness and confidence that last year's group had, we're not there yet with this bunch. We'll see how they play."

Davis and Spiller form one of the nation's best backfield duos, but depth behind them is nonexistent. The third-team back is converted safety Sadat Chambers, and fourth-team back Ray Ray McElrathbey's season-ending torn ACL means former walk-on Paul Macko will be the Tigers' No. 4 back for the forseeable future.

Running backs coach Andre Powell isn't happy about the lack of depth, but said he'll work with what he has.

"Would you like going to Wal-Mart with $4?" he said when asked how he liked working with four backs. "You'd like as many guys as you can to work with. I'd like six, but I'm not going to get six. We'll do the best we can."

Defensively, Clemson will be solid. Defensive end Phillip Merling is a potential first-round NFL draft pick, and linebackers Tramaine Billie, Nick Watkins, Antonio Clay and Cortney Vincent could collectively be the ACC's best. Safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons and cornerbacks Chris Chancellor, Crezdon Butler and Byron Maxwell will challenge receivers.

If the questions are answered and the pieces fall in place, Clemson could make the leap to Jacksonville despite a challenging schedule, starting with a Labor Day opener against Florida State.

If not, a new regime could be in place next fall.

If Bowden's players want any reminders, all they have to do is take off their pads.

"I'd like to play in a BCS bowl game, win a national championship," Bowden said. "That's been done around here. Florida, three years ago, they lost to South Carolina and won eight games, then they won eight games, and then they won a national title. So it's not being unrealistic."

CLEMSON INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS

  • Not long into the final scrimmage of fall camp, starting quarterback Cullen Harper suffered a broken ankle. At least that was the ruse coach Tommy Bowden orchestrated to examine how freshman Willy Korn would respond when suddenly thrust to the controls of Clemson's first-team offense.

Bowden and Harper were the only two people in the stadium who knew it was an act when Harper buckled to the turf while writhing in supposed pain. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence was even in the dark for a few suspenseful minutes.

Many observers interpreted this to mean Korn will share snaps with Harper this season at some point. But it's becoming apparent that, barring a complete collapse by Harper, the only way the freshman will see the field in a competitive game is a real injury to the starter.

Bowden said recently that Korn had closed some of the gap with Harper, but that didn't mean Korn had a chance at starting the opener against Florida State. Simply put, Harper has been that good during fall camp and spring practice. In fact, this goes all the way back to bowl practice in December, when he sizzled guiding the first-team offense while starter Will Proctor was taking a day off to attend graduation ceremonies.

To be sure, it's still an unknown how the redshirt junior will respond before a packed stadium and television cameras. But if Harper's impressive practice performance carries over to games, Bowden and Spence will look boneheaded for not giving him a shot when Proctor was falling apart last year.

  • Spence has vowed to be less conservative this year and to take more shots downfield, but that plan is hard to execute if pass protection breaks down.

Picking up blitzes might have been the biggest concern on the offensive side as the Tigers began full-scale preparations for the Seminoles. The defense racked up five sacks in the final scrimmage, three of them by blitzing linebackers and safeties.

Two years ago, Spence was criticized for calling too few deep throws in his first season. His explanation was a lack of confidence in protection, and thus far there are indications that could be an issue again.

The offense will be more diversified with star tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller lining up all over the field to give defenses more looks to confront. That means tight ends and H-backs will be asked to stay in and pick up blitzes to give Harper time to throw. Bowden wasn't pleased with that aspect late in fall camp, essentially calling out his tight ends for poor blocking habits.

Clemson's interior line is an unknown with center Barry Humphries taking over for Dustin Fry and right guard Thomas Austin trying to become a full-time starter. Also, left guard Chris McDuffie was stripped of his starting spot for a few days recently when offensive line coach Brad Scott demanded more consistency.

  • Clemson's recruiting has improved considerably over the past few years, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the secondary.

Junior safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons are All-ACC caliber players, but both are looking over their shoulder at incoming freshman DeAndre McDaniel.

Soon after he enrolled early in January, McDaniel made it apparent he'll get on the field early and often in 2007. Showcasing an impressive knack for finding the football and delivering bone-jarring hits, McDaniel is pushing Hamlin for the starting spot at Vic Koenning's "cat" safety position. And if he doesn't beat out Hamlin, he'll vie for playing time at Clemson's free safety spot.

McDaniel is still just a freshman, and his attitude has drawn Koenning's ire at times. But plan on seeing lots of this kid this fall.

  • Coaches are still waiting on Antonio Clay to rediscover the form last seen halfway through the 2006 season.

Clay left campus for the spring semester to cope with depression that stemmed from his sister's death last August. Though the junior linebacker appears OK mentally, he has yet to make enough progress on the field to reclaim his starting spot over Cortney Vincent.

Clay was overweight and out of shape when he returned to Clemson for voluntary workouts in May, and little changed over the ensuing three months when the team's strength and conditioning staff was reluctant to push him as he readjusted.

Clay was over 240 pounds at the start of fall camp, about 12 to 14 pounds over his ideal playing weight. He dropped to 230 with little problem, but his conditioning and sharpness still weren't at optimum levels.

It doesn't help Clay's cause that Vincent, an unheralded career backup, had an inspired offseason and put up spirited resistance in Clay's bid to take back his starting role.

  • Field goals were an adventure last year, with not even extra points exempt from uncertainty. Much of that was attributed to the spiral of kicker Jad Dean, a former Lou Groza finalist who fell apart mentally as a senior.

Mark Buchholz has yet to attempt a kick in a game for the Tigers, but so far there's every reason to think he has the mentality to make the pressure kicks.

Buchholz edged out heralded Richard Jackson during camp to get the starting job. Given the number of close games Clemson figures to face, that's huge.

  • Though Gaines Adams leaves a monstrous hole at a defensive end spot, Clemson's coaches don't seem to be losing sleep over the expected dropoff in production there.

There's no reason to think sophomore Ricky Sapp will blossom into a player of Adams' caliber, at least not right away, but it's not a stretch to expect the Tigers to remain productive at that position.

Sapp put on a lot of weight in the offseason and is now at about 248 – 30 pounds heavier than he weighed at the start of fall practice a year ago. The gain was necessary given Sapp's problems against physical tackles last season, but it also has affected his conditioning and quickness.

Coaches are riding Sapp to show more consistent effort, and their criticism is justified because there are still legitimate questions concerning his ability to be an every-down defensive end. But the staff isn't hyperventilating; sophomore Kevin Alexander has been a great fit at the position after moving from linebacker. Also, freshman Kourtnei Brown seems destined to avoid a redshirt based on his productivity so far.

The Big Picture

Tommy Bowden begins his ninth season knowing that he's not guaranteed a 10th in Clemson if the Tigers don't meet expectations. Last year's 1-4 flameout left the team with an 8-5 record that was a bitter pill after a 7-1 start and a top-10 ranking. Excellent recruiting for three straight years has elevated the program's talent dramatically, and everything points to a huge season in 2008. Problem is, the coaching staff knows that it probably has to cash in on that talent this year to be assured of being around next year.

The PooP

Offensive coordinator Rob Spence has improved the offense in two years at the helm, but his conservative nature has rubbed a lot of folks – including some of his own coaches – the wrong way. Quarterback Will Proctor's unraveling last year was well-documented, but Spence deserved some of the blame for going into a shell as a play-caller. He has vowed to take more risks this season by throwing downfield more, and that will be imperative against defenses that will load up to stop tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller.

Done For Me Lately

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 4-4 (5) 7-5 Peach Bowl (L)
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 5-3 (2) 6-6 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 7-5 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (L)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Tangerine Bowl (L)
2003 5-3 (3) 9-4 Peach Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 6-5 None
2005 4-4 (3A) 8-4 Champs Sports (W)
2006 5-3 (2A) 8-5 Music City Bowl (L)

ACC: 42-38 (.525)
Overall: 70-51 (.579)

Building Blocks

There's talent and potential on the offensive line despite the loss of four starters, including Dustin Fry, Roman Fry and Nathan Bennett. Left tackle Barry Richardson provided a huge boost by returning for his senior year, and senior left guard Chris McDuffie played the majority of the last six games after Roman Fry was injured. The biggest issue here is replacing Dustin Fry at center, but powerful redshirt sophomore Barry Humphries calmed those fears during the offseason. Florida State will make for a wicked test right off the bat.

Coming On Strong

Quarterback Cullen Harper has done so well in practice that it's hard to understand why he wasn't given a shot when Proctor was falling apart last year. The redshirt junior jumped ahead of freshman Willy Korn in spring practice and padded his advantage early in August camp, showing off a strong arm and a firm command of Spence's offense. There's no telling what'll happen with more than 80,000 fans in the stands, but the coaches love what they've seen so far.

Cause For Concern?

Sophomore defensive end Ricky Sapp may play in the NFL one day, but so far he has frustrated his coaches with his lack of intensity. Gaines Adams drew a lot of attention last year from the "bandit" end position, and the Tigers need Sapp to keep offenses from focusing too much on fellow end Phillip Merling. Sapp has many of the tools he needs to be the next Adams. The only question is when Sapp will decide to use them.

The Whole Truth

"If they want to put eight guys in the box and cover our guys man, I've got to be able to make that throw, and obviously the receivers have to run the route and make the catch. It'll put a little pressure on me, but I'll welcome it."

– Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper

Chart By: The Clemson Insider