By Dan Scott, For the Sports Journal
April 21, 2003 CLEMSON The whispers started late in Tommy Bowden's second year as Clemson's head coach. The fast-paced, finesse offense that put up so many points early in his tenure was beginning to have a negative effect on the Tigers' defense. The word used with some hesitance then, only to become more widely circulated over the next two seasons, was soft. Critics said the time spent in practice working against Bowden's spread offense took away from the aggressiveness of the defense.
Apparently, there was something to the theory, although insiders were hesitant to discuss such matters. Former defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, asked about the charge during a 2001 radio interview, cut the session short by apologetically saying, I can't answer that question. The record may very well have answered it for him.
After an 8-0 start in 2000, Clemson closed the year by losing three of its final four. Since that undefeated start, in a season that ended with a trip to the Gator Bowl, Bowden's record is 15-14. Over the last two campaigns, the Tigers are 8-8 in the ACC, a conference they dominated under Danny Ford in the 1980s. Despite 12- and 13-game schedules, they have won more than seven games only once in Bowden's four seasons on campus.
Herring has since departed the Clemson staff, replaced by John Lovett in 2002. Lovett's arrival seemed to have an immediate impact on the defense, which performed much better a season ago than it had in Herring's final days. But the improvement couldn't shake the growing reputation that the Tigers had grown soft, a reputation enhanced last fall by nationally televised blowout losses to N.C. State (44-3) and Texas Tech (55-15 in the Tangerine Bowl). North Carolina (38-3) had turned the trick in Death Valley in 2001.
So whether Bowden finally heard the whispers or simply grew tired of watching his team struggle on short-yardage plays the type of situations, offensively and defensively, that demand the physical strength and mental toughness required to drive opponents off the ball he decided to make some pretty dramatic changes.
When spring practice opened in March, Bowden proclaimed the Tigers would spend the entire session working on the running game. And they did not from the spread offense but from the I-formation, the one loved by Ford and so many other hard-nosed Clemson coaches throughout history.
My background is really more in the I, Bowden said. I'm comfortable with it, and I think it's something we need to work on to be a better football team.
It was a welcome change to many old-school Clemson fans, although they should be cautioned that Bowden hasn't totally junked the spread scheme. But the emphasis on the run put more focus on two very important areas that caused the Tigers problems in 2002: offensive line and running back.
Bowden long has lamented his lack of a playmaker at the tailback position. The most effective runner during his first four years at Clemson was Travis Zachery, a serviceable back who did all the little things well but lacked anything resembling breakaway speed.
It was thought that Zachery's replacement in 2002, Bernard Rambert, would provide more of the much-needed zip Bowden desired from his tailbacks. Instead, injuries to Rambert and, more importantly, to an already-thin offensive line, proved fatal to Clemson's offense. The loss of starting right tackle Derrick Brantley in week two, and of reserve guard Nick Black versus Florida State a few weeks later, decimated the Tigers' front five. As a result, the running game stalled again.
Complicating matters was Bowden's decision to redshirt five freshman offensive linemen last year, which meant line coach Ron West already devoid of any depth had nowhere to turn for help when the situation began to unravel. The influx of those youngsters, combined with another year in the weight room for the incumbents, have West excited that 2003 will be a much better year for his unit.
We're so much stronger than we were last year, West said. Every one of our guys right now can bench press at least 400 pounds and squat at least 500 pounds, some much more than that. Last year we couldn't say that. So by sheer strength alone, I think we'll be better.
The starters along the front line are set heading into the fall. Walk-on Tommy Sharpe, who has added yet another 20 pounds to his small frame and weighs in at over 270, is the starting center. Redshirt freshman Nathan Bennett and junior Cedric Johnson are the guards. Seniors Gregory Walker and William Henry will open at tackle.
It is a starting unit with some potential. Henry, one of the many graduate students on the Clemson roster in recent years, had bulked up from 270 pounds to 291 by the spring game. He should be at or near 300 pounds by the opening of fall camp, according to West. Walker was the team's best lineman a year ago, and Bennett impressed many with his jump to the top of the depth chart as a redshirt freshman. Additionally, for the first time in two years, there is at least some depth at each position should someone stumble.
That turns the attention back to the tailback slot, where Yusef Kelly is the projected starter who is being pushed by a pair of youngsters with sprinter-type speed. Sophomore Duane Coleman and redshirt freshman Reggie Merriweather turned heads all spring with their ability to turn in big plays from the backfield. Merriweather, especially, seemed to be the most pleasant surprise. He consistently broke long runs during the spring scrimmages, and along with Coleman, provided the only fireworks during the April 5 spring game.
In fact, despite the focus on his running game throughout the spring, Bowden chose to praise his defense when it was all said and done.
I was happy to see the way the defense played, he said. The offense had gotten the better of them for most of the spring, so I was happy with the way they responded. Defense wins championships, and that's what we need here. A championship-caliber defense.
As for toughness? Well, Bowden refused to acknowledge that perhaps his team lacked that characteristic when the spring opened, although he did say that the kind of work put in during the session automatically should help his team, especially in short-yardage situations.
It was left, then, to sophomore starting quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to speak the previously unspeakable.
This spring has made us tougher on both sides of the ball, he said. No doubt about it. It's something we needed, and I think it will make us a better team in the long run.
Dan Scott, who has been a sportswriter in West Virginia and South Carolina for more than 15 years, hosts a weekday radio show on WCCP-FM 104.9 in Clemson.