CLEMSON – About 15 minutes after his team wrapped up spring practice, Tommy Bowden sat in the bowels of Memorial Stadium and talked about the importance of the coming months.
Clemson's football team won't practice again – not officially, at least – until early August. But Bowden clearly sees the time between now and then, the time of "voluntary" offseason workouts, as crucial for ushering the Tigers to the prominence they've come so close to reaching in recent seasons.
"It's a certain hunger you have to have, a passion to get to the level we've been trying to get to the last three years," Bowden said. "We're close."
The we're-close theme has become an annual refrain. Last year, the Tigers saw their path cleared to Jacksonville after Florida State pulled off a stunning late-season upset at Boston College. All Clemson had to do was beat the Eagles in its last regular-season ACC game – at home, at night – to advance to the conference championship game for the first time.
The Tigers lost 20-17, squandering plenty of opportunities in the second half before dejectedly watching BC celebrate a division title on their home turf.
That loss might have sucked the life out of the Clemson faithful for a few weeks, maybe even months, but it didn't cool the optimism that surrounds this program from near and far. With an abundance of skill players returning on offense, plus a defense that seems plenty capable of finishing among the best in the nation yet again, the Tigers can achieve big things in 2008.
Athlon and Lindy's certainly think so. The two preseason publications have the Tigers, who finished 9-4 last season, in the Top 10. And Bowden, who's preparing for his 10th year at Clemson, hasn't done much to quell the high expectations.
"The combination of players coming back, I've never had," he said.
Undoubtedly, the biggest question confronting this team entering the spring was the offensive line, which lost four starters from a unit that struggled last season. That question will persist as the Tigers head into the summer.
With the Aug. 30 opener against Alabama looming, the issues up front probably will contribute to some sleepless nights for Bowden, offensive coordinator Rob Spence and offensive line coach Brad Scott.
The spring game underscored some of the concerns. Freshman defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, an early enrollee who made an immediate and considerable impact, blew by starting left tackle Cory Lambert for two sacks. Backup quarterback Willy Korn didn't even have time to set his feet in the pocket, getting sacked six times.
Bowden and Scott feel fairly comfortable about the situation at tackle, where Lambert and Chris Hairston will replace Barry Richardson and Christian Capote. But the youth and inexperience at the two guard positions is a major concern.
Redshirt junior Barry Humphries has some experience at right guard. But beyond that, the available talent consists of two veterans who haven't played much (Jamarcus Grant, Bobby Hutchinson) and three redshirt freshmen whose next college snap will be their first (David Smith, Mason Cloy, Wilson Norris).
Bowden believes this is a talented group that ultimately will flourish, but the only question is when. It's doubtful it'll happen in the opener in Atlanta, and that's why Bowden said he's strongly considering limiting the mental workload by simplifying schemes for that game.
"You have to be smart in things you ask them to do from an assignment standpoint and give them a chance to be successful," he said.
The good thing for the offense is, the Tigers might be blessed with enough skill players to offset any weaknesses on the line. With the return of quarterback Cullen Harper and tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Clemson will present defenses with quite a quandary. Add in first-team All-ACC receiver Aaron Kelly, plus the return of speedy wideout Jacoby Ford, and Clemson will be capable of a big play on every play.
Spiller made some of the most noticeable advancements during the spring, showing an increased willingness to run between the tackles and pass protect.
Those two qualities were painfully absent last season, when Spiller frustrated his coaches, his fans and even himself in a difficult sophomore year. He often drew criticism for his insistence on bouncing around behind the line of scrimmage, trying to pull off the spectacular on every run and often paying the price by getting decked for costly losses.
Spiller said he decided to make a change after watching the NFL Combine on television in February. He began to realize that he'd have to add to his game to have a chance at being a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
"He's motivated," running backs coach Andre Powell said. "It's amazing what people can do when they're motivated."
With Davis missing most of spring practice because of a shoulder injury, Spiller was able to showcase himself as the marquee back in scrimmages.
"His demeanor is different without James," Powell said. "For the first time, he doesn't have to be the counter-puncher. He's the bell cow."
Consistent defense has been the bell cow for Clemson over the past three seasons. The Tigers have ranked 16th or better in scoring defense during that span, and fourth-year coordinator Vic Koenning has the group primed to sustain that run.
The linebacker position, however, took some major hits, losing Nick Watkins and Tramaine Billie (65 career starts, 639 tackles). Also not expected to be in the fold is Antonio Clay, who spent the spring at home in Georgia dealing with emotional issues. Senior Cortney Vincent was arrested for DUI in December, and then he was suspended for spring practice after an unspecified violation of team policy.
Koenning seems comfortable with what he has, though. Vincent is expected to be reinstated barring any more missteps, and there are four other capable guys: junior Kavell Conner, sophomore Scotty Cooper, redshirt freshman Brandon Maye and freshman Stanley Hunter.
"Right now I feel like we're more productive at linebacker than I can remember us being in a while," said Koenning, who joined Clemson in 2005.
Other than linebacker, there are no glaring questions on defense – assuming that everyone stays healthy, of course.
The Tigers' starting four defensive backs are the best they've had in years, led by safety Michael Hamlin and cornerback Chris Chancellor. There are some depth concerns at safety behind Hamlin and Chris Clemons, but sophomore DeAndre McDaniel is gaining confidence and retention.
On the defensive line, the biggest question going into fall camp will be whether Bowers will have a starting role at strong-side end by the opener. Bowers moved to the second string by the end of the spring, and coaches believe it's only a matter of time before he supplants starter Kevin Alexander at the spot vacated by the early NFL departure of Phillip Merling.
Junior Ricky Sapp is ready to become a pass-rushing force on the other end, and the interior is experienced and deep. Behind starting tackles Dorell Scott and Rashaad Jackson, two all-conference capable players, are Jamie Cumbie, Miguel Chavis and Jarvis Jenkins.
Inconsistent field goal kicking hurt Clemson last year, but Bowden thinks Mark Buchholz will be solid in his final year of eligibility.
SPRING 2008 OVERVIEW
LB Tramaine Billie, RT Christian Capote, LG Chris McDuffie, DE Phillip Merling (early NFL), RG Brandon Pilgrim, LT Barry Richardson, LB Nick Watkins
WR La'Donte Harris, DS Colin Leonard, S Chris Russell
2008 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. Class
QB Cullen Harper 6-4/220 *Sr.
RB James Davis 5-11/210 Sr.
WR Jacoby Ford 5-10/185 Jr.
WR Tyler Grisham 5-11/180 Sr.
WR Aaron Kelly 6-5/190 *Sr.
TE Michael Palmer 6-5/245 Jr.
OC Thomas Austin 6-3/305 *Jr.
RG Barry Humphries 6-3/295 *So.
NG Dorell Scott 6-4/300 *Sr.
DT Rashaad Jackson 6-2/280 *Sr.
DE Ricky Sapp 6-4/240 Jr.
SS Michael Hamlin 6-3/205 *Sr.
FS Chris Clemons 6-1/210 *Sr.
CB Crezdon Butler 6-0/185 Jr.
CB Chris Chancellor 5-10/170 *Jr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Mark Buchholz 6-1/205 *Sr.
P Jimmy Maners 6-1/190 *Sr.
- -has utilized redshirt season
^ -six/more 2007 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
OT Chris Hairston, OG Bobby Hutchinson, OT Cory Lambert, TE Brian Linthicum, OT Jock McKissic (converted DT), TE Akeem Robinson, RB/KR C.J. Spiller, WR Rendrick Taylor
DE Kevin Alexander, DE Kourtnei Brown, FS Sadat Chambers, LB Antonio Clay (may return), LB Kavell Conner, LB Scotty Cooper, DT Jamie Cumbie, CB Marcus Gilchrist, DT Jarvis Jenkins, CB Haydrian Lewis, CB Byron Maxwell, SS DeAndre McDaniel, LB Josh Miller, DT Antwon Murchison, LB Cortney Vincent (if reinstated)
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 5-3 (2) 6-6 Peach Bowl (L)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 7-5 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
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)
2007 5-3 (2A) 9-4 Chick-fil-A Bowl (L)
ACC: 43-37 (.538)
Overall: 72-50 (.590)
Date Opponent 2007 Record
Aug. 30 Alabama* 7-6 (4-4)
Sept. 6Citadel 7-4 (4-3)
Sept. 13 N.C. State 5-7 (3-5)
Sept. 20 S.C. State 7-4 (7-2)
Sept. 27 Maryland 6-7 (3-5)
Oct. 4 OPEN
Oct. 9 at Wake Forest 9-4 (5-3)
Oct. 18 Georgia Tech 7-6 (4-4)
Oct. 25 OPEN
Nov. 1 at Boston College 11-3 (6-2)
Nov. 8 at Florida State 7-6 (4-4)
Nov. 15 Duke 1-11(0-8)
Nov. 22 at Virginia 9-4 (6-2)
Nov. 29 South Carolina 6-6 (3-5)
- in Atlanta
NOTE: Most game times still TBA.
ACCSPORTS.COM RE-LAUNCH COMING IN AUGUST!!