By Larry Williams
Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier
April 25, 2005 CLEMSON On the numerous occasions he was asked about his offense during spring practice, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden offered a standard reply. "You'll have to ask Rob," he said repeatedly. Bowden was referring to Rob Spence, whom he hired in January to give the Tigers' offense a much-needed pick-me-up. At most other places, a head coach deferring to one of his coordinators isn't out of the ordinary. At Clemson, Bowden's reluctance to talk about his offense is something new. After six years of having a large say in the Tigers' offensive direction, Bowden finally has decided to let someone else run it. The shift was evident when, at the press conference announcing Spence's hiring, Bowden said he had found someone to "fix the machine." Since then, it has become abundantly clear that Bowden has made good on his vow to keep his hands off the offense. After watching the Tigers finish 110th nationally in total offense during a 6-5 season in 2004, Bowden resolved that his once cutting-edge style had lost its edge. With Bowden looking over his shoulder, former coordinator Rich Rodriguez fashioned innovative schemes for two years before leaving for West Virginia after the 2000 season. For the next four years, the offense was more of a committee approach by Bowden, Brad Scott and Mike O'Cain. The Tigers gradually became unproductive, then bottomed out in 2004. Bowden fired O'Cain, who said he didn't have control of the offense last season despite his coordinator title. Spence, who spent four years helping Toledo put up prolific numbers as the Rockets' coordinator, took the job at Clemson under the condition that he be given total control. There's no telling what might happen if the Tigers' offensive struggles extend into 2005. But after 15 practices during the spring, there was no doubting that the new guy was running the show. The feeling among the offensive staff was one of rejuvenation and refreshment, primarily because under Spence the Tigers were doing things Bowden previously had rejected. The biggest change was the death of the "hurry up and wait" offense, in which players rushed to the line before pausing and looking to the sidelines for a play call that came from upstairs. The Tigers used the tactic with increasing regularity during the past three seasons, and fans not to mention players lost their patience with it. The object was to give a coach in the press box an opportunity to look at the defense before calling a play, but the act became tiresome when it wasn't producing. Defenses began to re-adjust their looks just before the snap, often making the exercise pointless. "That was no fun," quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said. Spence scrapped that scheme, giving Whitehurst the responsibility to look at defenses and check into the right play. During Whitehurst's first three seasons, it often was argued that he should be given authority to audible. But Bowden was reluctant to do it, saying that coaches spend more time studying opponents and are better prepared to call and change plays. Whitehurst, who said he didn't check out of one play last season, seemed to embrace the new philosophy. Mastering the nuances of Spence's offense made the past few months a blur, but he believes he will have a better opportunity to flourish in his final college season. "I'm more involved on game day now," Whitehurst said. "You have to prepare more to be ready for that, but there's a better understanding of what's going on. It's not like I've got free rein or anything. But it gets me more involved." Bowden admits to previous hesitance to offer that kind of freedom to his quarterback. But he said Spence's track record speaks for itself. "Whatever he's done, the quarterback has been awful productive," he said of Spence, who made previous stops at Louisiana Tech, Hofstra and Maryland. "So he's got the freedom to make (ours) as productive as those other guys. He knows what he's doing." Several other significant shifts stood out as the Tigers wrapped up spring drills on April 16. The tight end is now more than just a rumor in Clemson. After mostly ignoring the position during Bowden's first six seasons, the Tigers are embracing it under Spence. Using one-, two-, three- and even four-tight end sets, Clemson should be able to run the ball better while creating favorable matchups in the passing game. Since 1999, Bowden's first year, no tight end has caught more than 12 passes in a season. Coaches and players say that number could quadruple in 2005. Whitehurst now operates more from under center than from the shotgun. After using the shotgun almost exclusively during his first three seasons, he was under center close to 70 percent of the time during spring practice. Whitehurst said the new method allows him to scan the defense while dropping back instead of wasting valuable time watching the football on shotgun snaps. Receivers now have "option routes," a staple of the West Coast offense. Previously, the wideouts typically would have one prescribed route on all plays. Now, they have a set of two to four on each play, depending on what look the defense shows. "In this system, they take the handcuffs off," senior receiver Curtis Baham said. "We have the freedom to use our eyes and react off what we see, as opposed to being fixed to something. In our last offense, about five percent of it was option routes. In this one, there's about 85 percent." Spence added a few more wrinkles. After using little to no motion previously, Clemson now is using large doses of it, with the intention of creating good one-on-one matchups and exploiting defenses' weaknesses. Also, running backs will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield much more than in the past. "I've caught more passes in the last two days than I have in three years here," junior tailback Reggie Merriweather said during the last week of spring drills. The offense seems to be a mix of the West Coast and the Run and Shoot, two attacks known for their passing. But Spence also has proven adept at finding ways to run the ball, and that was one of the major reasons Bowden offered him the job. Last season, Toledo was one of just four teams in the nation to surpass 3,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards. In 2002, the Rockets finished in the top 30 in both rushing and passing yards. That's the kind of balance Bowden craves. The Tigers rushed for just 107.5 yards per game last season, their worst total since Clemson began recording the statistic in 1938. "I've done a poor job of keeping up with the curve in running," Bowden said. "We lost our edge a little bit. I've got to get that balance back. In the last few years, I've noticed that." Clemson's offense still has plenty of questions lingering from the debacle that was 2004. Can Whitehurst recover from his seven-touchdown, 17-interception disappointment? Will a dependable receiver or two emerge after a gaggle of dropped passes last year? Can the line keep Whitehurst from running for his life? Those issues were not resolved during the spring, when almost all of the focus was on the installation of Spence's offense. But Clemson fans can take comfort in knowing two things during the long summer months: The offense will be new, and it will be interesting. Spring 2005 Overview
The PooP Fortunately for seventh-year coach Tommy Bowden, his moment of truth at Clemson came not before last year's 6-5 disappointment but in 2003, when he rallied the Tigers to a 9-4 finish. Bowden's first four seasons as the Tigers' head coach (29-20, 19-13 ACC) bore a striking resemblance to those of his predecessor Tommy West (27-20, 20-12), and that wasn't good news in the Land of Perpetually High Expectations. After West finished 3-8 in Year Five, he was sent packing. Bowden, of course, turned his 9-4 campaign into a three-year contract extension (through 2010) with provisions that would make it very expensive for either side to make a change any time soon. For better or for worse, Bowden and the Tigers will enter the challenging 12-team ACC with their football fortunes tied tightly together. That should be interesting to watch because in terms of talent and facilities Clemson still has some catching up to do, and this town isn't known for its patience.
Probable 2005 Starters
+ injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong The Tigers have plenty of talent at quarterback and wide receiver, and coordinator Rob Spence's versatile, balanced, audible-heavy approach should give the skill players a better chance to flourish. Rock-solid returning starters: QB Charlie Whitehurst, WR Chansi Stuckey, DE Charles Bennett, LB Anthony Waters, FS Jamaal Fudge, CB Tye Hill. Also looking good: DE Gaines Adams, SS C.J. Gaddis, WR La'Donte Harris, DT/DE Rashaad Jackson, WR Aaron Kelly, LB Lionel Richardson, LB Nick Watkins.
Cause For Concern? Who's the best player on this team the serious All-America candidate, the near-lock for first-team All-ACC? Is there one? The best programs in the conference have a handful of bonafide stars every year, and they know who they are even before the season starts. The Tigers may develop some superstars in 2005, but they're starting at a significant disadvantage. Also: tailback, tight end, cornerback, new coordinators, new systems, depth along both lines.
On The Sidelines The following players missed all or most of spring drills: RB Duane Coleman (suspended), DE Xavier Littleberry (suspended), FB Brent Smith (knee).
Spring Cleaning The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: WR Michael Collins (medical/hip), WR Chris Jefferson (transfer), OL Brad Lee (transfer), WR Gerald McCloud (transfer), DB Justin Miller (NFL draft), DB Robert Reese (dismissed), LB Nigel Vaughn (dismissed), OL Tony Willis (transfer).