April 8, 2008
CLEMSON Spring practice sometimes can be an exercise in meaninglessness.
Coaches regularly manufacture position battles to keep starters from becoming complacent. The best players often are held out for large stretches to lessen the chance of injury.
But at Clemson, this year's spring practice has had an air of urgency. And the source of it is an offensive line that isn't inspiring a lot of optimism for 2008.
The Tigers stand a good chance at being picked to win the ACC's Atlantic Division, and they might even be forecast to win the conference. They fell painfully short of a division title last season, suffering a 20-17 home loss to Boston College in the final conference game, but the return of a fleet of skill players on offense not to mention plenty of talent on defense will make anything short of a division crown a major disappointment this year.
There's plenty of optimism surrounding this program, almost all of it justified. But if the Tigers don't get the offensive line squared away, they could be gnashing their teeth yet again at the end of the year.
Clemson lost four starters from a line that was the team's weakness last season. Included was Barry Richardson, who started 44 consecutive games at left tackle. Also departed is Chris McDuffie, a solid and battle-hardened left guard.
On the 10-man two-deep, there are a total of 16 starts by players at their current positions. Center Thomas Austin has 12 of them. Tackles Cory Lambert and Chris Hairston have one apiece, and that's only because the players ahead of them were being disciplined during last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn.
Tenth-year coach Tommy Bowden and veteran offensive line coach Brad Scott like what they have at two positions. Austin, a junior, is entrenched at center after moving there from right guard halfway through last season. Hairston, a sophomore right tackle, might be the best of the bunch.
But otherwise, there's uncertainty and concern. This group of blockers is talented and probably will be good eventually, but no one knows how long it'll take for them to develop as a unit.
Heading into spring practice, the coaches viewed the 15 sessions as a crucial part in that development. The two Saturday scrimmages preceding the spring game were going to give Scott a chance to see how his young line responded in game-like situations.
But Mother Nature intervened. The first stadium scrimmage was halted after just 29 plays because of a storm. A week later, the Tigers never even made it onto the field because of heavy rains.
Bowden didn't whine about the missed time, but he did lament it primarily because the scrimmages were going to be so important for the offensive line.
Bowden knows more than anyone how much the line's struggles cost his team last season. The Tigers averaged 161.2 rushing yards per game, ranking second in the ACC. But that statistic obscured the fact that they were absolutely stoned against the most physical, imposing defenses they faced. Against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Boston College, Clemson totaled 89 yards rushing on 86 carries.
Tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller amassed 1,832 yards rushing last year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But against the Yellow Jackets, Hokies and Eagles, the tandem totaled 136 yards on 56 carries, for a 2.4-yard average.
It's no coincidence that Clemson lost all three games. In the BC defeat, the Tigers couldn't produce in short-yardage situations. Settling for a field goal after a first-and-goal from the two-yard line early in the second half represented a huge momentum shift, and Clemson was denied a chance to play for its first conference crown since 1991.
Even Clemson's rushing total in the bowl loss (189 yards) was deceiving. Eighty-three came on one run, a second-quarter dash by Spiller that saw him bounce outside after getting stuffed inside. In the second half and overtime, the Tigers totaled 48 yards rushing on 25 carries.
The line also played a large role last fall in Clemson allowing 35 sacks, the most in Bowden's nine-year tenure.
With a date against Alabama looming in the opener, there's no luxury of easing into things. Bowden and Scott are going to know exactly what they have right off the bat, for better or worse.
BOWERS LIVING UP TO HYPE
Da'Quan Bowers. Remember the name.
Having signed with Clemson amid high acclaim ESPN.com rated him the best player in the nation regardless of position Bowers quickly has added justification to the hype during spring practice.
Had he not enrolled in January, Bowers probably would be getting fitted for a tuxedo for his high school prom in Bamberg, S.C. Instead, he's making his coaches absolutely giddy during spring practice.
Officially, Bowers is listed as the No. 3 strong-side defensive end, behind Kevin Alexander and Andre Branch. But it's only a matter of time before this kid snags a starting role. He's really that good.
His natural instincts remind coaches of Gaines Adams, who was taken with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.
When word began to circulate late last season that end Phillip Merling was strongly considering skipping his senior season and entering the draft, coaches didn't seem that worried because they had a certified stud on the way.
They're even less worried now.
BOWDEN: PARKER LOOKING HOT?
In more than nine years at Clemson, Bowden has developed a habit that makes many fans cringe.
When the microphones and television cameras are on, he has the uncanny ability to say silly and bizarre things. He recently offered his most bizarre statements yet, when asked about quarterback Kyle Parker.
Parker is an early enrollee who's been an instant success for the Tigers' baseball team. After practice last week, Bowden was asked if he'd seen Parker play baseball.
This was his response: "I've watched him practice, and I've watched him play (baseball). He's really good-looking. If I was a girl, I'd be very interested in him. He wears those tight pants. When you wear loose stuff, you can't tell the definition of a guy's body. In baseball, everything's tight, and you can tell he's very well put together."
By all accounts, Bowden is a happily married, heterosexual man. Clemson fans know that, and they know Bowden probably doesn't have the hots for one of his players.
But that didn't make the quote any easier to take. It came totally out of left field, and it set up Bowden not to mention Parker for immense ridicule from opposing fans. Without prompting, the coach happened to make the life of one of his players a lot more difficult.
Who knows what's going on in Bowden's head? But he needs to learn it's not always wise to air all of his thoughts to the media, and particularly those kinds of thoughts.