The 2006 season is upon us with a lot of lofty expectations for the Clemson Tigers. For the first time in a number of years, Clemson is being mentioned as a vital player in the race for an ACC championship.
And with the addition of the West End Zone, a number of seasoned veterans returning, and two respected coordinators who both have a year’s experience in the program, it appears Tommy Bowden has established a strong foundation for a program looking to return to the prominence it experienced during the ‘80s.
The biggest question facing Tommy Bowden is can he build upon that foundation.
The 15 starters and 43 lettermen he has returning will be a big plus, especially when you consider he has the leadership of 14 fifth-year seniors.
Even the strongest military leaders, CEOs, presidents, etc. cannot be extremely successful if there is no leadership from within the ranks.
All the talent and coaching in the world is not going to make this a special season. How the players respond will be the ultimate factor.
The offense made great strides in 2005 under first year coordinator Rob Spence and looks to become even more potent in 2006. It is not often a team can lose a three year starter, who set a ton of school records at quarterback, and expect to improve, but that seems to be the case.
Will Proctor finally has his chance to showcase his talents. His mobility and demeanor have many thinking he will be better than Whitehurst. At the very least, he has said and done all of the right things so far.
Although he is no Woody Dantzler, his ability to make things happen with his feet should not be overlooked. Remember, this is a guy that was moved to wide receiver two years ago because he was a good enough athlete that the coaches wanted to get him on the field.
Although he will have the occasional opportunity to run the ball, look for his mobility to play a bigger role in the passing game. Spence will, in all likelihood, move the pocket more in an effort to create more options by putting Proctor on the move. With the aid of a strong running game, it should make Clemson’s play action package much more potent.
The greatest buzz surrounding the offense has to be the running backs.
After struggling to find a reliable backfield threat in his first five years, Bowden now enters his seventh season with as good of a backfield as can be found in the ACC, at least on paper.
Sophomore James Davis returns after being the ACC Freshman of the Year. He has enough speed to be a game breaker, yet enough power to bang it between the tackles. The latter may be his biggest asset right now because he has shown the ability to get the tough yards when needed.
Freshman C.J. Spiller comes in with all the hype of a superhero after possibly being the biggest signing in Clemson history. It is tough for first year freshman to make a significant impact, especially considering the expectations that been placed upon him.
However, running back is the most natural position on the field and by far the easiest one for young players to make a considerable contribution. The comparisons to his favorite player, Warrick Dunn, are unfair at this point, but there is no doubt he has the ability to be an impact player early on.
And if having those two are not enough, Spence can turn to the man who may be the most forgotten person on the team – Reggie Merriweather. Despite not having the God-given talents of Davis and Spiller, he has proven time and again to be a solid back. He is the best blocker of the three and can provide the tough yards. Merriweather should get his fair share of time in two-back and short yardage situations.
The receivers are led by All-ACC performer Chansi Stuckey. The senior is the top returning receiver in the ACC based on catches per game. Despite the accolades, I have been rather critical of Stuckey.
There is no doubt he is full of big play potential, but I have yet to really see it. He had numerous opportunities in the open field last year, but never really capitalized on them. What he has shown is an ability to be a reliable receiver who makes those key catches to keep the chains moving.
Other than Stuckey, the unit consists of young guys with different talents.
Aaron Kelly fits the mold of a Derrick Hamilton in that he is tall and surprisingly elusive. He suffered a knee injury in the spring, but has rehabbed it well enough to vie for a starting spot.
Rendrick Taylor, Kelly’s counterpart in the battle for a starting role, is a physical freak who is adept at a number of different things. The staff created the “J-back” position for him during the off-season, but how much they utilize him in the capacity remains unknown.
One of the points lost during all of the talk about Taylor’s size and speed, is his ability to catch the ball. He had very few opportunities to showcase his sure handedness last season, but the staff has been very pleased.
Tyler Grisham is the least talked about of the bunch, but may be the most dependable. His motor runs non-stop and he is as reliable as anyone on the team. I have been surprised at how little his spring game performance has been mentioned. He made some excellent catches – I think 14 in all – and showed a knack for going after the ball instead of letting it come to him.
Freshmen Jacoby Ford and Jeff Ogren enrolled last January and have the added bonus of going through spring practice. As mentioned in a prior article, Ford has already reached mythical status because of his speed. He should be a factor early on in the return game and his role in the offense will likely be through the use of screens and high percentage passes.
All of this now brings us to the strength of the offense - the line. Nine of the top 10 players from last year’s depth chart return, including all five starters. Clemson is 39-9 in their last four seasons in which all five starting linemen returned.
Barry Richardson is one of the top tackles in the country according to many experts and had Dustin Fry left school after last season, the NFL Advisory Board projected him as a third or fourth round pick.
The group, which is rounded out by Nathan Bennett, Marion Dukes, and Roman Fry, is generally regarded as one of the top ten units in the country.
Depth is somewhat of a concern because there is not a lot of experience within the ranks other than Brandon Pilgrim.
The tight ends should see an increased role after hauling in 35 receptions last season, the most by that group since 1975. Thomas Hunter leads the group after working his way up from a walk-on to being a major presence last season.
Akeem Robinson and Durrell Barry are next in line. Robinson made vast improvements during the spring, especially as a blocker, and will see a significant increase in playing time. Barry is a very talented young player who has matured as quickly as the coaches would like. How much he places will be determined by how fast he grows up.
The 2005 version of the Clemson defense went through some growing pains while trying to learn Vic Koenning’s system. But as the season progressed, they became much more comfortable and ended the year playing like gangbusters.
With 22 lettermen and 7 starters returning, including likely first round picks Gaines Adams and Anthony Waters, Koenning is expecting big things from his unit, and rightfully so.
Tackles Dorrell Scott, Jock McKissick, and Rashaad Jackson made significant contributions as freshmen. Donnell Clark is a senior who missed part of last season with a knee injury. Throw redshirt freshman Etta Etta-Tawo, who has had a good camp, into the mix and the front four excites everyone because of their potential and youth.
There may not be a better pair of starting ends in the conference than Phillip Merling and Gaines Adams. Everyone collectively held their breath last January as Adams contemplated turning pro. His decision to stay in school was a huge boost for the defense, as his speed and athleticism are rare for a man his size.
Merling is another of Koenning’s “jumbo athletes.” He is big, powerful, and extremely agile. Because of all the attention Adams has garnered, Merling very quietly had an exceptional freshman season.
The only concern among the front four is the depth at defensive end. Two true freshmen – Ricky Sapp and Jamie Cumbie – are listed on the depth chart.
Sapp’s size was a concern for many because of his tall, lanky frame, but the staff loves his speed rush and thinks he is more developed physically than some believe. Do not be surprised to see Sapp and Adams lined up together – one as a linebacker type – at times this year in an effort to utilize their ability to get to the quarterback.
Anthony Waters is another player I criticized early on last year, but he improved each week and finished the season as one of the best in the league.
He has become the leader of the defense, and possibly the team, during the off-season. He is extremely gifted from a physical standpoint and has good instincts.
Behind him are Kavell Conner and Cortney Vincent. Vincent played the “Bandit” position last year, but has moved back to his natural position. He is currently listed as third on the depth chart because Kavell Conner has had a wonderful spring and preseason. Conner’s speed and toughness have been a welcomed surprise.
With the loss of Tramaine Billie for an indefinite amount of time, Antonio Clay and Nick Watkins are now the starters on the outside. Both have been in the coaches’ “doghouse” during the season, but have responded positively over the last couple of weeks. Clay may or may not be in the line-up Saturday because of the death of his sister.
Should he choose not to play, Maurice Nelson will get the nod. Nelson was highly thought of coming out of high school,l but has yet to fill the expectations the staff had for him. After a good off-season in the weight room, this may be his chance to finally step up.
After Nelson, depth once again becomes a factor at the two outside positions. Josh Miller played sparingly last year as a true freshman, with most of his work coming on special teams. Newcomers Jeremy Campbell and Kevin Alexander have fared well during camp, but their inexperience has shown. Both are physically mature for true freshmen and linebacker is one of the positions where instincts can help cover some mental mistakes.
The secondary is the one unit on the team that likely worries everyone. The losses of Tye Hill and Jamaal Fudge are big. Hill was one of the best in the country and Fudge was a guy that probably had one of the quietest careers in Clemson relative to the way he played. He was very reliable and always seemed to be around the ball.
The good news is cornerback Duane Coleman and safety Michael Hamlin return.
Coleman had a rather shockingly good end to the season considering made the move to defense for the first time in his life last October. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with tenacity. He is a competitor in the truest sense of the word and also one of the best open field tacklers on the team.
Hamlin is another of the freshmen All-Americans who saw his role increase throughout last season. He finished the year as a starter after impressing the coaches with his play and his understanding of the scheme.
C.J. Gaddis moves back to corner after flip-flopping between there and safety in the last year or so. To say he was a huge liability at times last year is an understatement. Simply put, he looked absolutely lost much of the time and never really played up to his physical capabilities.
However, the coaches have been extremely impressed with his growth during the spring and summer and believe the proverbial light bulb has finally come on. He is suspended for Saturday’s game due to an “academic violation”, but should return as the starter against Boston College.
After those three and Sergio Gillam, the list of secondary players looks familiar only to parents and diehard recruiting enthusiasts. The other safety spot is manned by Chris Clemmons and Chris Russell. Clemmons has very little experience, but managed to beat out the former Colorado Buffalo and junior college transfer in Russell. Russell has excited the coaches with his physical ability, but Clemmons gets the nod because of his limited experience and the fact he has a better understanding of the system.
Sergio Gillam went from being a starter at corner at the beginning of last season to third team this season. He is listed behind Coleman and Haydrian Lewis on one side. Lewis played sparingly last year as a true freshman and
made the mistakes expected of someone in that role. He looked great at
times and awful at others. His biggest asset is his size and physical nature.
Chris Chancellor is listed as the backup on the other side. His smallish frame (5’9”, 170) has been a concern, but he has played like he is much bigger during the preseason.
Much like the offense, the strength of the defense is going to be up front.
The front four should do well against the run and provide good enough rush to take a little heat off of the secondary.
And just like the offense has a more potential than real experience at the skill positions, the secondary has a lot of promise that needs to develop quickly with road games against Boston College and Florida State looming on the horizon.
Jad Dean is one of the top returning field goal kickers in the country. He has had some very big kicks during his career and has showcased a very strong leg. Consistency has been his lone weakness during his three years, but he has enough experience in tight situations and another year to work out some kinks. Look for a big year from him.
The punting situation is still up the air as of Thursday afternoon. Richard Jackson has falling out of the race for now because of a bad back during preseason. Jimmy Maners has gotten his release times down to the 1.9-2.0 seconds range from 2.1-2.3 and is now locked in a battle with Cole Chason.
Despite looking awful much of the last two seasons, Chason has shown enough leg strength at times to be a more than adequate punter. Part of the problem may have been a damaged psyche due to the unusual formation Clemson has used. First year coach Billy Napier has implemented a more traditional formation, which may lead to a better performance from Chason.
Colin Leonard returns as the long snapper after being shaky at times last year. He is the biggest question mark facing the special teams heading into the season. If he can solidify his performance, all should be well.
The return game should receive a boost from the addition of Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller. The two will be returning kicks while Ford will get the first nod on punt returns. Bowden has mentioned the possibility of putting both back there on punt returns if teams start trying to kick away from the lone returner.
The returns in recruiting as a result of the West End Zone being built have paid off the last couple of years as evidenced by a look at the depth chart.
Lots of first and second year players are listed throughout, especially at many of the skill positions on both sides of the ball and the front four on defense.
That is certainly something, which should excite everyone. The downside to that is you hate having to rely on so many young players to make a substantial contribution. How these youngsters respond will be the key to how the season unfolds. At the very least, fans should be somewhat optimistic because many of those players are there, not out of a need, but because they have performed well enough to earn those spots.
The offense should be able to take some of the pressure off the defense by sustaining drives with an improved ground game. Unlike the past few years where the offense used the pass to set up the run, this should be the first time in a while they can use the run to set up the pass. If you take a look at many of the top programs over the last few years, each of them have had that quality.
The Florida Atlantic game should be nothing more than a tune-up. After going 9-3 two years ago, they fell to 2-9 last year with only six starters returning. Like most Florida teams, they will be extremely fast and athletic. But unlike most of the Florida teams Clemson is used to facing, they should not match up very well from an overall personnel standpoint.
Look for a big emphasis on the ground game and play action passes from the offense while the defense works to sure up the linebacker corps and secondary. It may not be the blowout many would like to see because the staff will work a lot of new faces in on both sides of the ball. The Tigers win 38-7.