September 16, 2002
CLEMSON - It's still early, but the leading candidate for whatever assistant coach of the year award might be available is Clemson defensive coordinator John Lovett.
The evidence is in the numbers. Through three games, the Tigers had allowed just one opponent (Georgia Tech) more than 300 total yards (303) and were allowing an average of 266 per game. Last season, under the direction of the great screamer Reggie Herring, the Tigers allowed 394 per game.
All of the players point to Lovett, and they all say variations of the same thing: He teaches, and he puts us in position to make plays. Herring always whined about nobody making plays. Through three games, the Tigers made a bunch of defensive plays.
Here are two examples:
In the Louisiana Tech game, true freshman cornerback Justin Miller made an interception in the end zone by taking a pass away from a Bulldog receiver. In the Georgia Tech game, the Yellow Jackets, trailing by five points, were driving for the potential winning touchdown when linebacker Eric Sampson picked off a pass to seal the Tigers' first ACC victory of the season.
It was cover four, and I just had to read three, Sampson said. He came on a skinny post, and the quarterback threw the ball right to me. Coach Lovett put me in the position to make that play.
Lovett has installed a zone-blitz scheme that definitely has improved Clemson's pressure on the quarterback and its pass coverage. Through three games, the Tigers had five interceptions, eight sacks and nine turnovers. It took the Tigers seven games last season to get their seventh turnover.
With John Lovett, the defensive staff and the defensive players, we have some great leadership, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. The defensive staff really has done a good job.
Even though the secondary took a hit with the season-ending injury to cornerback Toure Francis, it improved with the return of Altroy Bodrick and the emergence of Eric Meekins. Their physical play has made a big difference.
Up front, tackle Nick Eason got off to a tremendous start. He had two sacks and three tackles for loss against Georgia Tech. He did not record a sack last season, after moving from end to tackle. Meanwhile, ends Bryant McNeal and Khaleed Vaughn both are becoming major contributors.
Knowing the recent history of these (Clemson-Tech) games, I thought it was dÈjý vu, Clemson quarterback Willie Simmons said. I thought we were going to give the game away at the end. But the defense is playing so well right now. They got us out of another jam. I tip my hat to them. They've played excellent for three years. They're back to where Clemson's defense is supposed to be.
Fans Responding To Defense
The Clemson fans also have gotten on board with Lovett's defenders. After several years of watching the defense make a steady decline, the fans are getting excited about the improvement.
The roar begins in Death Valley when the Clemson defense takes the field. Before third-down plays, the fans stand to back the defense. The Valley is starting to return to the old days, when it was difficult for visiting offenses to function because they couldn't hear the quarterback's signals.
I think the defense is carrying us, Simmons said. They've held two quality offenses (Georgia and Louisiana Tech) under 300 yards. I don't know the numbers (against Georgia Tech), but aside from that one big run they had early in the first half (a 72-yard run by tailback Tony Hollings), I don't think Tech got too many yards.
Lovett's defense has made football at Clemson fun again. There's a confidence in the program that hasn't been there in a while. Even though Lovett is a lot quieter and a lot less hyper than Herring, the Tigers actually are playing defense with more enthusiasm.
Simmons Making Enough Plays
The Clemson offense also is making its share of plays, as Simmons continues to grow into the starter's role.
I think the entire offense is starting to feel more comfortable, Simmons said. We're still not clicking on all cylinders yet, and we've got a long way to go, but we're working hard and we trust each other.
Simmons made two highlight-reel plays against Georgia Tech:
Late in the first quarter, wide receiver Derrick Hamilton took the ball from Simmons and ran 77 yards for a touchdown. Hamilton needed one more block to get into the end zone. Who threw that block, at the five-yard line? Simmons, who carried out his fake to the opposite side, sprinted downfield and got a block for Hamilton.
Late in the second quarter, Hamilton returned a punt 79 yards to the Georgia Tech five-yard line. On a fourth-and-two play, Simmons rolled left, trying to get to the corner. With his path to the corner cut off, he tossed a shovel pass to tight end Bobby Williamson for a touchdown.
On plays like that, you look for playmakers instead of plays, Simmons said. They wanted to get on the edge, so hopefully I could make a play. I told them we were going to get the touchdown. I went out with the intention to run first, but I saw a guy come up to try and tackle me. I just flipped the ball toward two of our receivers, and by the grace of God, Bobby was able to come up with it.
Injuries Causing Some Problems
For the second straight year, injuries are starting to pile up and causes problems for the Tigers.
In the first two games, Clemson lost two players for the year because of knee injuries. Francis went down in the Georgia game, while offensive tackle Derrick Brantley was lost against Louisiana Tech game. Francis was replaced by Kevin Johnson, who lost a tough preseason battle to Francis for the starting job. Brantley's spot went to underachieving redshirt junior William Henry. Brantley is not eligible for a redshirt or a medical redshirt because he already has used his redshirt season.
The one place the Tigers can't afford any more injuries is on the offensive line. When center Jermyn Chester couldn't start against Georgia Tech because of a stinger in his neck, Bowden had to call on 6-0, 250-pound Tommy Sharpe.
The Tigers also have been hit hard by injuries at running back. Bernard Rambert and Chad Jasmin missed the Georgia Tech game. With them out, Yusef Kelly had the opportunity to become Clemson's feature back. He rushed for 97 yards and three touchdowns against Louisiana Tech and 89 yards against Georgia Tech.
Kelly has become a fan favorite because of his hard-running style. In the Georgia Tech game, every carry by Kelly was greeted by what sounded like a chorus of boos. The cheer actually was Yoo-ooo.
The injuries may not be as bad as they seem on the surface, because Bowden never misses the chance to talk about every splinter or hangnail on the roster. Nine times out of 10, if Bowden says on Tuesday a player is doubtful for Saturday, you can bet the ranch that player will play on Saturday.