March 15, 2004 CLEMSON Paranoia is making a strong comeback at Clemson this spring. Since the early 1980s, when the NCAA set up camp in Tigertown, paranoia has been a fixture of the Clemson landscape. The Tigers' basic approach has been summed up this way by some long-time observers: Be nice to the fans when you need them, and put up a helpful front for the media, even though you dislike anyone who's not an obvious homer. In recent weeks, football coach Tommy Bowden sent three more signals that paranoia is back at Clemson, perhaps even stronger than ever. At his press conference previewing spring practice, Bowden fussed at the media members present for writing that Brad Scott's move from offensive coordinator to offensive line coach was a demotion. His reasoning: Scott retained the title of assistant head coach and received a raise. Bowden also said the move was Scott's idea. Of course, in anybody's book except Bowden's, removing the title of coordinator is a demotion. The list of ACC assistant coaches who left their teams rather than accepting a lesser job title is a very long one. Several assistants contacted by the Sports Journal in March said job title often is the first thing that comes up in the interviewing process, even before money, and that its overall importance in the college football coaching industry is second only to money. At one point, Scott even told several reporters that he had to dig deep in his desk drawer to find his notes on offensive line play, from his days as Florida State's line coach. So if the switch really was Scott's idea, it must have come as a surprise even to him. Meanwhile, because several media outlets (including the Sports Journal) reported the assistant coaches changing positions story a month before Bowden wanted to release it, Bowden instituted a gag order on his assistant coaches and players. Now all requests to interview assistants and players must go through the sports information office. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to control the flow of information. Breaking stories from inside the football department likely will become more difficult to obtain, because sports information director Tim Bourret and his aides will know who talked to the coaches and players. But coaches and players still talk to plenty of non-media members, who obviously aren't bound by athletic department policies, and that talk always seems to get back to reporters. The flow of information may slow a bit, but it still will trickle out. It always does. Of course, the changes reported in all of the Clemson media outlets were entirely accurate, leaving many to wonder about all the fuss. Quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain is the new offensive coordinator, Scott moved from offensive coordinator/tight ends to the offensive line, Ron West from the offensive line to the defensive line, Thielen Smith from the defensive line to rovers/whip linebackers, and Jack Hines from rovers/whips to tight ends. Said Bowden: I look for ways to improve. Fair enough. But considering the finish to the 2003 season, the moves were nothing if not curious. Finally, Bowden announced that, beginning with the recent March 10 practice, all mid-week spring practices are closed to the media and the general public. Paranoia also may be involved here, because amateur reporters/fans were going to practice, then returning home and posting their observations/thoughts on the internet. Even though it's just the spring, Bowden apparently doesn't want anybody to know anything about his team. It's a silly approach, especially at a school whose $34.8 million athletic department is driven by football revenue generated by passionate fans, and it's certainly a way to disconnect with a fan base that is among the most rabid in the country. Even former coach Danny Ford, the king of Clemson paranoia, opened spring practice. Bowden opened spring practice before his first season at Clemson, and most of the talk surrounding the early drills was about the large amount of colorful language used by the assistant coaches on the practice field. That talk was embarrassing to Bowden, a devout Christian. Bowden said he has thought about closing spring practice before. This time, he's going to do it because he can. After all, he has a new contract extension, and there are few people in the world at the moment who can tell him what to do. Spring Goals: Running, Red Zone During his preview of spring practice, Bowden said there were two main goals: improving the running game and becoming more efficient in the red zone. One of Bowden's goals last spring was to improve the running game, remember, but the Tigers spent the first two games of the regular season getting stuffed. The offense's persistent problems inside the 20-yard line are well-documented. The four-game winning streak at the end of the 2003 season has Clemson fans setting extremely high expectations for the 2004 Tigers. But there are numerous questions that need to be answered. Among them:
- The offensive line made dramatic improvement in 2003. Will it continue to improve under Scott? The biggest battle for a starting spot is at right guard, where Chip Myrick (6-4, 290) was listed in front of returning starter Nathan Bennett (6-5, 312) on the first depth chart of the spring.
- Who is going to replace the big-play ability of departed wide receiver/kick returner Derrick Hamilton? Some observers point to Airese Currie, but his durability is questionable. It could be Chansi Stuckey, who has been moved from quarterback to wide receiver. Stuckey showed some slick moves in limited time as an option quarterback last fall. Many Clemson fans are salivating at the thought of Stuckey getting the ball in the open field. Wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney said Stuckey is catching on quickly, no pun intended. The depth at wide receiver took a hit in the offseason, but there's still talent available. Kelvin Grant and Michael Collins both need to live up to their considerable potential.
- Who is going to back up quarterback Charlie Whitehurst? Whitehurst has proven he can take a hit, but what if he does get knocked out of a game? Who is the backup? Stuckey has been moved to receiver, but Bowden said if a quality backup QB doesn't emerge, he'll move Stuckey back. C.J. Gaddis, who also is trying to play baseball this spring, is the leading candidate for the backup spot. In March, Gaddis repeatedly emphasized that he knows a football scholarship is paying for his education, and that spring drills will take precedence over his responsibilities on the diamond.
- When is a Clemson running back going to impress somebody? When is a Clemson running back going to run away from somebody? Chad Jasmin had a superb Peach Bowl against Tennessee, but Jasmin is gone. The top three running backs entering the spring were Duane Coleman, the often-injured Yusef Kelly and Reggie Merriweather. When healthy, Kelly is the best of the three, but it's going to be difficult to improve the running game if Coleman, Kelly and Merriweather are the only three candidates.
- What is the biggest hole on the depth chart? Try the defensive line. There is one returning starter (Mo Fountain) and a bunch of question marks. Wake Forest's misdirection offense in the 2004 season opener will be a tough chore.
- Who is going to play next to linebacker Leroy Hill? Hill returns after a stellar junior season, but John Leake is gone. Anthony Waters (6-3, 235) is the leading candidate to replace Leake. One of the best-kept secrets at linebacker is Hill's backup David Dunham, a vicious hitter.
- Will the inconsistent Aaron Hunt be replaced by the inconsistent Jad Dean?