Wake Forest - Clemson Preview


by - Correspondent -
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Has a Clemson season opener ever been so important?


A win does not guarantee a spectacular season nor does a loss signify a three month long heartache. It would be ludicrous to think one game could make or break a season. One’s sanity would also be questioned if they did not comprehend the significance of this game.


Clemson is in a position it has never seen, at least not in the modern era where college football is bigger than life itself. With the ACC becoming a new powerhouse, superiority within the conference will certainly mean superiority on a national scale. That means winning all of the games you’re supposed to win while taking gradual steps towards beating FSU and Miami on a regular basis.


Since 1953, Clemson holds a 42-7-1 advantage in the series. Only once during that time has Wake won consecutive games (’92 –’93). Despite their lopsided victory last year and some very close games in the recent past, very few people in the college football world would argue Wake has passed Clemson.


Their last meeting seemingly changed the course of the season for both schools. Wake ended the season on a three game skid, including a blowout loss to UConn.


On the other hand, Clemson finished with a four game winning streak, making them one of only nine schools in the country with a current streak at least that long. It’s as if Wake awakened a sleeping giant. This is the main reason why Saturday’s game is so important.


For all intents and purposes, this game will determine if last season’s finish is attributable to momentum or a change in the team’s mentality. Momentum, as powerful as it may be, rarely carries over from one season to the next. In the game of football, momentum is nearly always fueled by competition. When it is going your way you want to play everyday. Once the momentum stops, the mentality of a team is what takes over.


Sure, this team had a different mental approach after last year’s loss. They fought as one. They had fun as a team. They became closer knit. The clichés could go on and on.


They mean nothing if the Tigers do not display those same intangibles on Saturday. Forget coaching ability. Forget athletic ability. The most important factor in the outcome of this game is the mindset of the players.


I am sure that statement sounds elementary. After all, a team’s mindset is always important. And we all know the Clemson players want to win. The question is are they going for revenge or are they out to prove last year’s finish was no fluke.


If it is all about revenge, look out because this game could get ugly in favor of the Deacs. Revenge is about focusing on the past, which is great until that first punch in the mouth. At that point all you can do is revert back to the last meeting. You begin to question yourself and your abilities. Revenge makes for great movie scripts but is not quite as meaningful in the real world.


What this teams needs is a chip on its shoulder. That is the type of attitude that focuses on the future. The goal for this week should not have anything to do with what took place on November 11, 2003. It should have everything to do with what happens in 2004.


OFFENSE


If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you have memorized the two-deep as well as each players’ height and weight. I am not going to discuss that.


Everyone knows about Charlie Whitehurst. I discussed his abilities and the intangibles he offers in a preseason article last year. He exceeded expectations. I am not smart enough to say anything that has not already been said.


The questions surrounding the offense are about who will provide some support for Charlie. For starters, will the line play well enough to give him a chance? They do not have to be an impenetrable wall but he cannot run for his life like he did against Texas Tech two years ago.


Barry Richardson has been the biggest surprise of preseason camp. His size (6’7”, 350 lbs.) helps make up for his inexperience (17-year-old that finished high school a year early). If he is forced to play early and often, it could cause problems for the offense. It takes a very rare individual to be able to step in at that age and not have the offense lose a little something.


Many folks seemed to be concerned about Jesse Pickens, and rightfully so. You never want to go into a season with a fifth-year walk-on getting his first significant playing time. To think these two are guarding Charlie’s blindside is downright scary.


The positive is that Pickens has been around long enough to develop some good fundamentals and Richardson is going to win some battles by default as a result of his size. If Brad Scott could only combine the two…


If the line can give Charlie time, can anyone besides Airese Currie step up and make some plays. Everyone knows Chansi Stuckey is a playmaker. He just has to prove he can consistently make the catches.


Depending on who you talk to, the name Kelvin Grant either conjures up a big smile or a big sigh. He has the potential to be an All-American one day. He also displays the inconsistency that may keep him off the field more than he is on it. Because of his size, he is the guy whose play could elevate that of the entire unit.


There are others that will play significant amounts of time, namely Curtis Baham. He could be the most consistent of all the WRs. However, these are the three to focus on because of their playmaking potential.


Despite the loss of Duane Coleman, the running backs should not be a big concern. The largest void to fill will be finding a guy that can handle the third down situations. Coleman became only the second RB in Clemson history to rush for 600 yards and have 300 yards receiving in one season. That made him a wonderful threat on third down.


In all likelihood, Kyle Browning will be the guy that assumes that role. The problem is he does not have the body to pick up blockers in those situations. Although Coleman is not a big guy, that twenty or so pounds he has on Browning makes a world of difference.


Yusef Kelly and Reggie Merriweather will step up and do well. Clemson seemed to be approaching the season with more of an emphasis on their inside running game. That approach could suit these two perfectly.


DEFENSE


Clemson put up some very impressive offensive numbers in that four game stretch last year. Those efforts were made possible by stingy defense. More specifically, a run defense that was ruthless.


Gone are Donnell Washington, Khaleed Vaughn, and DeJuan Polk, all of which were keys in establishing that solid core. Replacing them is not going to be easy.


Eric Coleman steps in at one DT spot. He’s played over 700 snaps in 34 games. The only thing missing from his resume is that he has never officially started a game. Opposite of him will be Trey Tate. The redshirt junior has played enough to know what it takes. Whether he has it or not is up to him.


There is a lot of depth at defensive end but they lack a lot of experience. Charles Bennett has been a holy terror during the spring and preseason. One can only hope it is because he is that good instead of the offensive line being that bad.


As for the linebackers, it is a matter of the big dog leading the puppies. Leroy Hill is an absolute stud. He is a monster.


Hill’s backup, David Dunham, may be the biggest hitter on the team. If he has improved on his lateral movement, look for him to shine as he replaces Hill from time to time.


Anthony Waters and Nick Watkins have a lot to prove on the outside. The coaches have sung their praises for some time. How they react with 80,000 fans screaming during a crucial point of the game will tell a lot about how they will perform.


The secondary is not a problem, at least not as long as there are no injuries. The starters are proven, as The Sporting News ranks at #2 in their preseason rankings of defensive backfields. Add to the mix Eric Sampson, who is a hybrid LB/DB, and this is the definite strength of the defense, if not the team.


The front four will dictate how the defense performs. In particular, the defensive tackles are going to have to play extremely well. If these guys can manage to clog up the middle on a regular basis, the defense has a chance to be very good. The speed of the defensive ends and linebackers will allow them to pursue the outside runs. The secondary should fare well against the pass, especially when teams are forced to pass.


This will be a great test for this group. Wake is going to run and run often. Saturday afternoon’s performance will tell a lot about what John Lovette has to look forward to for the rest of the season.


SPECIAL TEAMS


Cole Chason is back as the starting punter. As ugly as his punts were at times, he was pretty efficient. One would assume Clemson will continue to use its very unconventional punt coverage unless Chason has improved tremendously on the accuracy and hang time of his punts.


The kicking battle will not be decided until Saturday, or so Bowden says. Jad Dean and Stephen Furr both seem to have strong legs. What they lack is consistency. You kick a lot more 35-yarders than 55-yarders during a season. Consistency is what will decide the starter before the end of the season. Do not be surprised to see Dean handling the long ones and Furr coming in for the chip shots.


Geoff Rigsby is back as the snapper. He had a great year in 2003. He is a long snapper. What else can you say?


The return game will miss Derrick Hamilton. His true specialty was the return game. Now that he is gone, the fans will finally get to see what Chansi Stuckey and possibly C.J. Gaddis can do with the ball in those situations. Gaddis seems to be more like Justin Miller in that he has size and speed. Stuckey is a lot like Hamilton – a jitterbug type. Miller and Currie will still be very much in the mix and may steal most of the time.


CONCLUSION


Lots of Tiger fans seem to think this game will be a runaway for the Tigers. That could very well happen but I honestly do not see the basis for these comments other than blind loyalty.


Wake trounced the Tigers last year and pushed them to the limit two years ago. Jim Grobe seems to have the Tigers’ number at this point. His program appears to be on the rise and has a good nucleus of returning players.


This is a touch game for the Clemson staff. You never like facing an offense like Wake’s, especially when you have not seen them in action. Throw in a few off-season wrinkles and it is extremely tough. The positive to all that is the staff has had a ton of time to study what they know Wake will do and they had more than one week of practice to work on the game plan.


Offensively, Clemson has added a few wrinkles. Lord knows they needed it after Wake manhandled them last year. There is talk that Wake will mix it up between the 3-3-5 they have run the last few years and a 4-3. The multiple looks could cause some trouble for the younger guys on the line.


Ultimately, it comes down to three things. First, will Clemson’s defensive front be able to have modest success? Second, will the offensive line give Charlie a fighting chance? Finally, will some playmakers step up at wide receiver?


It is tough to base opinions on spring ball and preseason practice because the players are seeing the same thing every day. Any “sure thing” predictions for the first game are based purely on gut feelings. I have a gut feeling that Clemson has enough leadership and maturity at the right positions to make a difference. I also think they are more focused on this season than what happened last year.

Clemson wins 31-21.

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