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Talent / Depth / Experience Means Shot At Dream Season

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff




By Larry Williams
Charleston (S.C.) Post Courier

August 30, 2006

CLEMSON - One point.

One measly point.

That's really all that separated Clemson from last season's ACC championship game and a chance to soak in the grandeur of the Bowl Championship Series.

Or so the thinking goes. Had the Tigers beaten Georgia Tech in the eighth game of the season instead of losing 10-9, they still would have been denied a trip to Jacksonville for the inaugural conference title game. Based on the ACC's tiebreaker rules, a three-way tie among Clemson, Florida State and Boston College would have sent the Eagles to Jacksonville.

But that's somewhat beside the point. Regardless of what another victory would have done for a team that won six of its last seven games, the undeniable message is that the Tigers were close - really close - to something special.

Clemson finished 8-4 and ranked No. 21 in the polls, but those four losses came by a total of 14 points. Six points to Miami in triple overtime. Three points to Boston College in one extra period. Four points to Wake Forest. And, of course, one point at Georgia Tech.

In Bowden's first six seasons, his teams had a propensity for being blown off the field at least once a year. That didn't happen in 2005, and Bowden isn't wasting an opportunity to point out to his team how close it came to greatness.

Of course, Clemson also flirted with disaster. Four of its victories were by a total of 18 points. But Bowden, like most coaches, prefers accentuating the positives over the negatives.

"We're not that far away," he said. "Last year showed that."

The Tigers seem to have bought into lifting the extra weight, running the extra sprint and doing the extra up-down to make up the difference between good and great. Almost everyone around the program has caught on, creating anticipation not often seen since the Danny Ford days, even in this land of perpetually high - and some say frequently unrealistic - expectations.

The Tigers have to replace quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who set 46 school records as a four-year starter. But that hasn't thrown off most prognosticators, who have pegged Clemson as a sexy pick to challenge Florida State in the Atlantic Division despite the presence of starting QB Will Proctor, who has attempted just 34 career passes.

Undoubtedly, the pundits are placing more weight on an offensive line that returns all five starters. Not to mention the return of tailback James Davis, who claimed ACC rookie of the year honors in 2005. Or the return of receiver Chansi Stuckey, who led the conference in receptions. Or the return of defensive end Gaines Adams and linebacker Anthony Waters, who both flirted with leaving early for the NFL before deciding to stay put for their senior season.

Indeed, the pieces appear in place for Clemson to make a run at its first ACC title in 15 years. Despite voicing some skepticism, likely rooted in past failures under his watch, Bowden has no qualms with labeling this team a potential contender.

Clemson has 18 scholarship seniors on hand for this season, including 13 fifth-year players who have provided leadership and set the standards during voluntary offseason workouts. The Tigers also return 25 players who started at least one game last season.

"We have more depth this year than any year that I've been here - on both sides of the ball," said Bowden, who is 52-33 in seven seasons at Clemson. "I've never been here and had all five linemen coming back. And I've never been here and had the ACC rookie of the year coming back, a guy like Gaines Adams coming back. And the number of players - yeah, I've got a better team."

There's no doubt that, in terms of talent and depth, this is Bowden's best team since he left Tulane for Clemson in December 1998. The Tigers' recruiting has risen to another level over the past three years, creating an assortment of skill players who appear comparable to those at Miami, FSU and Virginia Tech.

But all of that won't mean a thing if Proctor doesn't pan out at quarterback. After redshirting in 2002 and dabbling at receiver in 2003, Proctor spent his sophomore and junior seasons toting a clipboard and watching Whitehurst take all but 104 of the snaps.

Both publicly and privately, Clemson's coaches and players express almost no apprehension that Proctor can get the job done and get it done well. His mobility makes him a better fit than Whitehurst under second-year coordinator Rob Spence, who runs a gaggle of play-action bootlegs and sprint-outs while focusing mostly on high-percentage passes.

Proctor gained valuable experience last season against Texas A&M, calmly guiding the Tigers to a come-from-behind victory in the fourth quarter while Whitehurst was out with a head injury. Not long thereafter, Proctor moved into the first-team quarterback role during practice, as Whitehurst spent most of the season playing with a nagging shoulder injury.

Proctor started in the ninth game against Duke and threw for 201 yards while running for 31. A week earlier against Georgia Tech, Bowden vetoed Spence's call for Proctor to start over Whitehurst.

Whitehurst led the ACC last season in completion percentage, throwing for a 67.4-percent clip. According to the Clemson coaches, there's every reason to think that Proctor can surpass 70 percent this season.

"It's tough to replace a guy who's a legend," Proctor said. "But at the same time, I'm going to do something a little bit different. I'm going to try to bring my own thing to the table. ... My objective is to manage the game and let the playmakers make the plays."

Regardless of what Proctor has done in practice, he still has to make the plays under immense pressure in places such as Tallahassee, Blacksburg and Chestnut Hill. Clemson's three most difficult games are at those places, according to most projections, and how Proctor handles the hostile environments should play a big role in the Tigers' success or failure.

"That's my only concern is, how is he going to be able to weather the storm of being the guy for five months?" Bowden said. "It's been Charlie for four years, now it's him. ... That'd be the biggest concern, is that he try to do too much and self-impose pressure."

Clemson's wealth of offensive weapons will help alleviate some of that pressure. Davis and senior Reggie Merriweather return in the backfield, and highly acclaimed freshman tailback C.J. Spiller should be an instant factor.

If the preseason raves by his coaches and teammates are any indication, Spiller will create lots of headaches while paired with Davis in two-back sets. Running backs coach Burton Burns, who's not normally prone to hyperbole, compared Spiller to former Southern California back Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 NFL draft pick.

"He's got great speed like Reggie," Burns said. "He's also got a knack for great patience as well, following blocks and making that decision at the last second. With his patience, speed and acceleration, there's something that he has that is a little different."

The Tigers have plenty of talent at receiver with the return of Stuckey and 6-5 sophomore Aaron Kelly, who had an impressive (47 catches, 575 yards) freshman season. Rendrick Taylor, a 6-1, 225-pound receiver most often referred to as a "freak" by his teammates and coaches, is challenging Kelly for a starting position.

Adams and Waters delighted fans by staying for a final year in Tigertown and keeping second-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning from having to rebuild. Koenning welcomes back seven starters from a unit that allowed an average of just 11.4 points over the last seven games in 2005.

The defense absorbed a big loss when senior linebacker Tramaine Billie went down with a broken ankle in August. He isn't expected back until midseason at the earliest, and he could end up taking a redshirt year and returning in 2007. In his place is sophomore Antonio Clay, a promising player who played in all 12 games last season backing up Waters. Clay will have to fight off junior Maurice Nelson, who has shown a lot of improvement since the season ended.

Cornerback is a potential weakness for a secondary that relied on Tye Hill to shut down opposing receivers the past two years. Hill now is playing for the St. Louis Rams, and opponents could pick on senior Duane Coleman and/or junior C.J. Gaddis.

Coleman, who switched from tailback to corner early last season, surpassed initial expectations by starting the final three games and giving the defense a physical presence. He is excellent in run support, but his lack of blinding speed can be a liability. Gaddis, a superb athlete who came to Clemson as a quarterback, still hasn't completely warmed to playing defense. Michael Hamlin took his starting spot at "cat" safety halfway through last season, and Gaddis eventually shifted to more of a nickel-back role.

Punting was a major problem in 2005, and so was simply getting punts off. The Tigers had five of their attempts blocked, and they ranked 114th nationally in net punting with an unsightly 29.4-yard average.

The Tigers have junked their quirky punt formation in favor of a more conventional look, and Bowden hopes that senior punter Cole Chason will be challenged by freshman Richard Jackson and walk-on Jimmy Maners.

Clemson has its share of questions to answer, but not as many as usual, and not as many as most ACC teams. The Tigers' biggest question is whether their deepest and most talented team in years is ready to contend.

"It has the potential," Bowden said. "But the inconsistencies we've had since I've been here as far as having a chance to come back with another one. ... We've been in this situation before, with similar excitement, and have not produced."

CLEMSON INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS

  • Tommy Bowden has taken great pains to paint Clemson's tailback rotation as a three-horse race, but it looks as if that race will involve just two thoroughbreds -- James Davis and C.J. Spiller.

The odd man out appears to be Reggie Merriweather, a senior who has made meaningful contributions for the past two years. Bowden has said that Merriweather again will get his share of carries in 2006, but in August he was used almost exclusively as a blocker in the Tigers' two-back sets.

Merriweather probably isn't happy about his lack of touches, but it's hard to blame Clemson's coaches. Davis is only a sophomore but already is one of the best backs in the ACC, if not the nation. Spiller exceeded expectations in August camp, and that's saying something, given the almost unbelievable hype that accompanied the five-star player's arrival from Lake Butler, Fla.

Merriweather probably should have seen the writing on the wall late last season, after Davis returned from a broken wrist. After averaging 18.7 carries over a four-game stretch, Merriweather received a total of eight carries in the final two games, while Davis had 55 attempts for 295 yards.

  • Clemson's coaches have received plenty of deserved credit for upgrading recruiting over the past few years. But in the wake of two defections during preseason camp, it's evident that the staff also is capable of totally whiffing.

Big things were expected of tight end Paul Muse and offensive tackle Quentez Ruffin when they signed in February 2005. Both players turned out to be complete busts who had almost no shot at playing before Bowden essentially gave them the boot.

The 6-3, 250-pound Muse was buried on the depth chart when he missed several practices for what Bowden termed "family issues." Those issues had nothing at all to do with family; Muse had yet to complete community service for his role in a fight last year, and knowing that Muse seldom had a clue in practice probably made Bowden's decision easier. Interesting postscript: Muse quickly transferred to Florida Atlantic, which is on the Tigers' schedule this year.

Ruffin's story is strange. After arriving at Clemson a year ago weighing 320 pounds, he had lost more than 80 pounds by the time August arrived. Ruffin blamed the plummet on a possible thyroid problem, but it may have been more the result of laziness, which frequently drew the wrath of offensive line coach Brad Scott and the team's strength and conditioning personnel.

  • In early August, the Tigers' defensive coaches were hoping that true freshman defensive ends Ricky Sapp and Jamie Cumbie would be able to play right away. So far, only half of that scenario has come to fruition.

While undersized and vulnerable on running plays, Sapp has established himself as the backup to star "bandit" end Gaines Adams. Cumbie has not been able to beat out Brandon Cannon as Phillip Merling's No. 2 on the other end.

Cumbie was a first-team Parade All-American in high school, but he wasn't in great shape when he arrived for camp. His upper body needs some work, and he could end up being redshirted this fall.

  • Cole Chason, while still worthy of the dreaded weak-link tag until he consistently proves otherwise on game days, finally seems to have responded to Bowden's pokes and prods.

Bowden has called out his senior punter plenty in the media over the past year, and he's even embarrassed him in team meetings by pointing out his lack of size and his inability to make discernable improvement in the weight room.

Perhaps inspired, Chason had his best preseason camp yet. Walk-on Jimmy Maners has made the battle for the starting job more than interesting, but this year's version of Chason doesn't appear to be the same guy who averaged only 33.4 yards in net punting last year.

THE BIG PICTURE

It's been a long time since Ken Hatfield's second Clemson team claimed the ACC title in 1991, giving the program its seventh conference crown in 14 years. This is probably the Tigers' best shot to reclaim the glory, adding to the already immense pressure that eighth-year coach Tommy Bowden faces on a regular basis. Winning a conference championship is much harder than it was when Clemson owned the ACC from 1978-91, but the fans remain anxious for the Tigers to return to college football's elite. Improved recruiting has put Bowden's program in excellent position to achieve a higher rate of success and maintain it, but a difficult schedule complicates dreams of a 10-win season.

The PooP Second-year offensive coordinator Rob Spence received a lot of acclaim, most of it deserved, for making Clemson's attack formidable last fall, after it languished in 2004. But while Spence has given the Tigers a viable running threat, he was still way too conservative in some games last year. That was evidenced by the team's inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Insiders believe that Spence will lighten up and take more deep shots in his second year, and it may be stupid for him not to, given the Tigers' impressive assortment of weapons. It'll be intriguing to see what happens if Spence's offense again fails to cash in on so many touchdown opportunities.

Done For Me Lately Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 6-2 (2) 7-5 Peach Bowl (L)
1997 4-4 (5) 7-5 Peach Bowl (L)
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 5-3 (2) 6-6 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 7-5 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (L)
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)

ACC: 43-37 (.538)
Overall: 69-51 (.575)

Building Blocks Not long ago, Clemson's offensive line was known as a liability that couldn't push people around. Indeed, for a while Bowden couldn't decide if he preferred 300-pound monsters or 275-pound athletes in the trenches. Now the Tigers have five seasoned starters returning from a group that improved as the 2005 season went on. Left tackle Barry Richardson and left guard Roman Fry anchor a line that switched to Spence's zone-blocking scheme last year. There's good depth as well. Nine of the top 10 linemen are back from 2005, and four redshirt freshmen will push for backup roles after sitting out last season.

Coming On Strong For many years, Bowden lamented his inability to land a breakaway tailback. He doesn't have that problem anymore, with the presence of sophomore James Davis and true freshman C.J. Spiller. The pair should give Clemson one of the most potent backfields in the ACC, if not the nation. Davis proved last year that he's the real deal, and Spiller lived up to his billing during August camp by blowing the coaches away with his speed and vision. Spiller's arrival has made a virtual afterthought of senior Reggie Merriweather, who led the team in rushing two years ago and made some key contributions last fall. Barring injuries, Merriweather could be limited to a few carries in short-yardage situations.

Cause For Concern? Senior strong-side linebacker Tramaine Billie was excelling before he suffered a broken ankle late in preseason camp. He's supposed to be out until midseason at the earliest, and the Tigers could struggle to fill the void. Sophomore Antonio Clay eventually should be a star at Clemson, but he's got a ways to go. Junior Maurice Nelson moved over from the weak side to give Clay some competition.

The Whole Truth "If we start slow, like we've been known to in the past, we're not going to do anything this year. We're going to go to the Champs Bowl."

- Clemson center Dustin Fry

Chart By: The Clemson Insider