By Daniel Ogle
Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail
April 12, 2004 SPRING 2004 OVERVIEW CLEMSON After two mediocre seasons, Clemson finally entered the offseason feeling good about itself. After one of the most humbling experiences in the proud history of the football program, a 45-17 pasting at Wake Forest on Nov. 1, the Tigers closed the season with four straight wins, finally bringing some of the swagger back to Death Valley. More than three months have passed since Clemson's 27-14 win over Tennessee in the Peach Bowl, and linebackers coach David Blackwell said one of the biggest goals of the spring was trying to reclaim the swagger the Tigers were playing with at the end of last season. "What we are wanting to see is an attitude of not cockiness, not arrogance, but when we walk on the field, there is an attitude that you are not going to move the ball on us," Blackwell said. "We want to see them maintain it constantly." The offensive fireworks got most of the attention in the late-season run, highlighted by a 63-point outburst against South Carolina. But an under-appreciated part of Clemson's late-season success was its defensive effort. The Tigers allowed just 48 points over their final four games, and thanks to the strong interior play of tackles Donnell Washington and DeJuan Polk and inside linebackers LeRoy Hill and John Leake, foes found it increasingly difficult to find running room. Florida State and Tennessee, two teams ranked in the top six nationally when the Tigers played them, rushed for a combined 49 yards. During the four-game winning streak, opponents rushed for less than 80 yards per game against the defense of second-year coordinator John Lovett. Both starting tackles are gone, with Washington declaring early for the NFL draft and Polk exhausting his eligibility. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that coach Tommy Bowden's biggest area of concern heading into the fall is finding defensive tackles who can stop teams from running up the middle. While the Tigers spent much of last season in the I formation on offense in an effort to get tougher, this spring saw the focus shift to goal-line situations. The offense consistently dominated the defense in those drills, and the Tigers' three veteran interior linemen (center Tommy Sharpe and guards Cedric Johnson and Chip Myrick) had little trouble moving out the defensive tackles. "I see too much running yardage being done," Bowden said. "I see too much interior movement by the offensive line. That would be my biggest concern. My front four. You can't hide down there. I would just like for them to be more successful. Really, the offense is at more of a disadvantage than the defense. Quarterback can't block anybody, so it is 11-on-10. You can't throw deep. I am not going to throw anyway. They need to win more than what they are." Undersized junior Trey Tate (6-4, 270) was the most consistent defensive tackle for the Tigers in March and April, but no one really stood out. Junior college transfer Cory Groover got better as the spring went along and is expected to make a serious push for significant playing time, but the Tigers need better production from the most physically gifted of their tackles, Eric Coleman (6-5, 305). "We just haven't been good at (goal-line play) all spring," Lovett said. "Until we get some tackles to step up and play better, it is going to be like that. The line of scrimmage has to be re-directed. The rest of it doesn't make any difference. It is our biggest concern, whether we are playing base defense or goal-line defense. We don't have a defense unless we have two, or let's put it this way, four tackles. We don't have a defense." The struggles of the tackles exposed another area of concern on defense. Leake, who finished second to Hill on the team in tackles and was an important leader on that side of the ball, exhausted his eligibility last fall. Hill burst onto the scene in 2003, was voted first-team All-ACC and overshadowed Leake all season. But Blackwell said Leake had a very good senior year, and finding a replacement to play alongside Hill is just as important for the defense as finding tackles. Sophomore Anthony Waters and redshirt freshman Nick Watkins staged a battle for the spot all spring, with neither one making enough of an impression to cement a starting spot. Blackwell said where the team might miss Leake most is on the goal line, where leadership and a will to make a play mean just as much as talent and ability. "I think that is where you miss a DeJuan Polk, a John Leake, a Khaleed Vaughn, who were vocal leaders of our football team," Blackwell said. "The spring is where you develop those things. We are still searching for a leader." Hill, a quiet guy who doesn't like to speak much, has been vaulted into the role of leader simply by his production. He made 145 tackles, including 27 for loss, and registered eight sacks in 2003. He also was the defensive MVP of the Peach Bowl. He said he's still learning how to do more than just play linebacker.
"My role last year was sort of quiet," Hill said. "I didn't really talk that much. Now they are looking for me to step up and push the guys. It is a little different, but I am catching the hang of it slowly." His teammates praised him throughout the spring for his newfound leadership efforts, but Hill and the rest of the defense were called out on April 3, after the second scrimmage of the spring. The defense had dominated the scrimmage for most of the afternoon, keeping the first-team offense out of the end zone until situational work inside the 20-yard line. Charlie Whitehurst, the Tigers' accomplished quarterback, had failed to find his rhythm for much of the day.
But when the Tigers went to goal-line work to close the scrimmage, the offense clicked. Running backs Duane Coleman, Yusef Kelly and Reggie Merriweather repeatedly ran into the end zone with little opposition, as Hill and the rest of the defense looked to have mentally checked out after a rough stretch the session before.
Blackwell said Hill has to do better. "He has to be a leader by how he plays the game," Blackwell said. "He is not a vocal screamer, yeller, get-in-your-face kind of a guy. I am not going to ask him to be that. I am going to ask him to be himself. What I want him to do is step up and make plays on the goal line when he is supposed to." The good news for the Tigers this spring was that their offense played a big part in making life difficult for the defense. Whitehurst, a rising junior who already ranks among the top three passers in school history, displayed his usual accuracy, leadership, poise and efficiency. Bowden said he saw more toughness from his tailbacks than he remembered from either of the last two seasons. Speedy wideout Airese Currie is finally healthy, and he should get plenty of help this fall from dependable veteran Curtis Baham, shifty playmaker Chansi Stuckey (a converted quarterback) and talented sophomore Kelvin Grant. "We were real productive (offensively) most days," Bowden said, before again thinking about his defense. "We were too productive."