Off-season coaching changes, the loss of some key players, and lack of experience for those waiting in the wings has done little to dampen the expectations of many Clemson fans. As is the case all across the country, a new season brings along hopes of a dream season that will not soon be forgotten.
At the same time, a tough schedule, especially in the month of September, and a lack of familiarity with the new systems in place has many wondering just what to expect. The additions of Rob Spence and Vic Koenning may not equate to more wins, but the offense and defense should be much more exciting to watch.
It seems as if every season brings with it lots of uncertainty, but this year seems to be as unpredictable as any in recent memory. If the Tigers were playing in the old ACC and facing an average non-conference schedule as they did many times in the last decade, it would be hard to imagine how lofty the aspirations would be.
As things stand, they are facing their toughest schedule since at least Bowden’s first year, if not longer. His coaching changes and the recruiting classes of the past few years will surely be put to the test early and often.
The talk since day one of the Rob Spence era has been his plan to use multiple formations utilizing as many as four tight ends. The position has been a major factor in his offenses of the past and he has promised they will catch nearly as many balls as they have during the entirety of Bowden’s tenure at Clemson.
Not only will they become a factor in the passing game, they will consistently be used as an H-back. This is not something he has implemented within the last few years. Some may remember a 52-23 drubbing at the hands of Maryland in the mid-90s. Spence coached the inside receivers and tights ends on that squad tha saw tight end/H-back Frank Wycheck rush for 150 yards, just one of the numerous times he surpassed the 100-yard mark.
The biggest conundrum at this point has been the seemingly inexplicable absence of the tight ends coming out of the preseason scrimmage reports. Have Spence and Bowden intentionally gone without mentioning these guys in hopes of not tipping their hand to A&M?
My guess is yes. Bobby Williamson and Cole Downer, the two top tight ends on the team, may have hindered the progress of the offense to a small degree because they’ve been out at times. Still, Spence doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to change his style due to injuries. Thomas Hunter, Akeem Robinson, and possibly to some degree Durrell Barry, have left him with some options. Add to that the ability of Steven Jackson and Cliff Harrell to play the role of H-back and things should be progressing fairly well.
Brad Scott says this is his best line yet. The depth, although not what he would like it to be, is as good as it has been in some time. Battles throughout the line and ability to use at least two players at multiple positions have forced everyone to work harder to gain starting positions and/or fight for playing time.
A running back by committee approach seems inevitable thanks to four able bodies at the position. Reggie Merriweather, Duane Coleman, Kyle Browning, and James Davis all bring a little something different to the table. Merriweather is a workhorse that likes to run north-south. Coleman and Browning are excellent receivers, with Browning being a little quicker and more of a traditional scat back. Davis combines a little of all three and appears to be the game breaker of the future.
Charlie Whitehurst looks to regain the form he showed during his sophomore year. His numbers from 2004 don’t tell the entire story. A large number of his interceptions were a result of tipped balls, dropped balls, or unrelenting pressure. He was sacked 25 times and at least 43 of his attempts were thrown away in order to avoid sacks.
Spence’s quarterbacks have routinely completed a high percentage of their passes, as much as 70% some years, and they have been given the freedom to make changes at the line. That’s music to the ears of many fans who grew weary of Clemson’s “hurry up and wait” offense.
The receiving corps is the biggest question mark. Although Kelvin Grant, Curtis Baham, Chansi Stuckey, and La’Donte Harris have received significant playing time, none of them have really stood out in the past. Grant suffered a grade two-shoulder separation nearly two weeks ago and is doubtful. Even a healthy Grant would be a mystery at this point because of his inconsistency last season.
Stuckey has all the ability in the world as a playmaker but he limped through most of last season due to nagging injuries and has yet to prove himself. Baham has been solid when called upon the last two seasons but his touches have been limited due to playing behind better players and poor production by the offense as a whole.
Harris, for all practical purposes, might as well be a freshman. He received a number of snaps last year but was basically out there to fill a position while others rested. Aaron Kelly came in with Harris but red shirted in hopes of maturing physically. He has been the guy coaches have mentioned the most when talking about possible surprises for the season. His height is a welcomed addition, but he’s still extremely thin and his durability could be cause for concern.
The emergence of Rendrick Taylor and Tyler Grisham during the preseason has excited Dabo Swinney, but counting on true freshmen to make significant contributions may be too much to ask. It’s not a question of their physical ability. Rather, it’s how well they adjust mentally to Spence’s complex system that requires a lot of the receivers.
Defensively, Texas A&M is as good as any team Clemson will face this season. Their front four is big, very big. Tackles Johnny Jolly and Red Bryant are both 6’4” and 310 lbs. or more. Jolly is a potential high round draft pick and one of the leaders of the defense.
Ends Chris Harrington and Jason Jack are as big as or bigger than Clemson’s nose guards and tackles. Battling the down linemen will be a huge test for the offensive line, which should give coaches and fans a good idea as to how they will fare the remainder of the season. The top two backups are either 280 lbs. or more.
The linebackers are prototypical physical specimens who are experienced. Two seniors and a junior make up the starting three with the backups being a senior, junior, and sophomore.
The Aggie secondary may be their one weakness on defense aside from senior FS Jaxson Appel. He doesn’t excel in the open field and isn’t as big as many safeties out there, but he somehow ends up around the ball and is a sure tackler. The corners are a true sophomore that was a part-timer last year, and a senior that saw mostly special teams action last year and competed as a strong safety in 2003.
Their pass defense ranked 93rd in the country last year, while giving up 244 yards per game and 24 touchdowns. Some experts have said their secondary can only improve, but that task could be easier said than done with their inexperience on the outside.
The losses of Eric Coleman, Leroy Hill, and Justin Miller were big blows for the Tigers. Washington was a big body capable of freeing up others by clogging up the middle. One of the beneficiaries of his run stopping ability was All-American Leroy Hill. The former ACC Defensive Player of the Year will be sorely missed in the middle.
Maybe the man that will be missed the most on defense is Miller. His return for his senior season would have been a huge boost for a secondary that’s now starting two rather new faces at cornerback and “cat” safety with a third, Jamaal Fudge, playing a new position.
Fudge should make an easy transition to free safety. Because of the lack of recognition he has received despite manning the strong safety position as well as anyone, he may have been the most underrated defensive player in the league the last two years.
Tye Hill should be a strong presence at the other corner spot. He’s on many preseason awards lists and should have a great senior season as long as he lives up the hype. The only possible downside to his return is the fact that many teams will focus on attacking the other corner spot. Sergio Gillam and Chris Clemmons will be tested early and often.
The linebackers return decent depth in Anthony Waters, Nick Watkins, Tramaine Billie, and David Dunham. Waters and Billie are returning starters while Watkins and Billie logged a significant number of snaps last year.
Waters makes the move to the middle and should fit in well with his size and quickness. Billie made significant strides in the last half of 2004 and may be the most reliable tackler on the team. The coaches have sung the praises of Watkins since his arrival. He’s very athletic and a big hitter who needs to become more consistent with his assignments in order to become the player his capable of being.
Freshmen Antonio Clay and Josh Miller will both play this season. Aside from James Davis, Clay was probably the most sought after prospect in last year’s class. His decision to spurn Oklahoma on signing day has already made him a fan favorite. Miller wasn’t as highly touted because he committed last summer, which kept many schools from pursuing him, but he’s another player the coaches really like.
The biggest question facing the defensive line at this point, is whether or not the glass is half empty or half full? Ends Gaines Adams and Charles Bennett are battle-tested veterans with high expectations. Adams’ athleticism should allow him to flourish in his new role as the bandit end.
Cory Groover and Trey Tate are the two guys on the inside with the most experience. Groover suffered through an off-season full of injuries, which hampered his progress during summer workouts. He’s just started to regain his old form within the last week, but the good news is he’s a true “gamer.” Something tells me he’ll be ready come Saturday night.
After those four guys things get iffy. Bennett is backed up by true freshman Phillip Merling while red shirt freshman Courtney Vincent is behind Adams. Jock McKissic (FR.), Donnell Clark (R-JR.), and Rashaad Jackson (R-FR.) make up the remainder of the inside group.
Clark has played sparingly over the last two years. Jackson is the guy Marion Hobby says most likely deserves to start this week, but he may hold off on that because the youngster has yet to play in a college game. The good thing for McKissic is he isn’t as far behind physically or mentally as most freshmen. He sat out last fall working on his academics and enrolled this past January.
Clemson’s apparent weakness seems to play right into the hands of A&M’s strength – running the ball. The Aggies ran roughshod over the Tigers last year as QB Reggie McNeil and RB Courtney Lewis both gained over 100 yards.
Their starting line is very big and has a lot of experience. Averaging 6’4”, 317 lbs., just their sheer size should create problems for Clemson’s undersized interior linemen. Other than McKissic, who checks in at 290 lbs., Clemson is 275 lbs. or less on the inside. They’ll have to use their quickness along with lots of movement in order to have a chance.
McNeil is a huge talent. His 4.3 speed allows him to escape trouble and make plays much the same way Woody Dantzler did. The difference is McNeil is more of a polished passer who has a better supporting cast, at least in terms of linemen. It’s inevitable that he’s going to make some big plays. The key will be limiting the number of those plays and how well the defense recovers after each one.
Lewis was a workhorse in last year’s contest as he went for 165 yards on 28 carries, which was his best game of the year. However, he struggled against the better teams on the schedule as he gained 44 vs. Utah, 31 vs. Oklahoma St., 57 vs. Oklahoma, 15 vs. Texas, and -6 vs. Tennessee.
The receivers, although not as fast as a group as many teams, are as physical as any bunch the Tigers will face this season. At 6’2” 230, Earvin Taylor looks like a linebacker with speed. Koenning’s promise to play more zone coverage this year may be a good thing considering the strength of the Aggie receiving corps is their physical nature. Trying to play them tight at the line could spell disaster for smaller defensive backs.
The biggest void left by Justin Miller’s departure is in the return game. Even the youngest of Clemson fans may live their entire lives without seeing another like him playing for the home team. Chansi Stuckey and C.J. Gaddis are the two vying to replace him, but anyone that believes that either of those two can do as good of a job is living in a fantasy world.
Jad Dean returns as the kickoff and field goal specialist. He did a wonderful job in 2004 with his kickoffs and fought through early struggles to finish the 12-of-15 on field goals. Leg strength has never been a problem; it’s his consistency that needs a little work.
Cole Chason continued his trend of improving as the season progressed. He’s doesn’t have the strongest leg around and struggles at times with his consistency, but he’s not the type of guy that’s going to lose the field position battle for you.
Replacing Geoff Rigsby is going to be a task that very few have given thought, but it’s a challenge that the coaches will tell you is as important as any. Unfortunately, many fans remember him for his mistakes against Duke and Georgia Tech. What they fail to realize is he was as reliable as any long snapper in the country during his career, which means Nic Riddle has a very big pair of shoes to fill.
As for A&M, they have one of the top kickers in the country in Todd Pegram. He was 12-of-13 last year while nailing his first 12 attempts, but he did miss 5 extra points. After Pegram there are a lot of question marks. Their punter is a red shirt freshman and their return units were some of the worst in the country. They averaged just over 15 yards per kickoff return and ranked 97th in punt returns.
Clemson’s coverage units have been very successful over the last two seasons while their counterparts for the Aggies weren’t anything to get excited about last year. This could play a big factor if the game is close.
This game is one big question mark. From new starters to new coordinators, no one really knows what to expect from the Tigers. Texas A&M has fewer questions from a personnel standpoint, but how they utilize that personnel could be could be a mystery for at least one Clemson coach – Vic Koenning.
The A&M staff visited with Florida coach Urban Meyer during the off season in hopes of finding more ways to take advantage of McNeil’s athleticism through the use at least some of the principles of the spread option attack. Meyer, considered the spread option guru, has stated that McNeil is the perfect QB for such a system.
Stopping an offense that totally decimated them last year is a tough enough task as is. Now they have to do it by preparing for a few new wrinkles. The good thing is Koenning has had some success against mobile QBs in the past. He faced Missouri and its star QB, Brad Smith, last year and found a way to eek out a surprise victory. Smith is the only man other than Woody Dantzler to surpass the 2000/1000 barrier, yet his numbers that night weren’t overly impressive (25-of-46 for 224 yds., 2 INTs, 0 TDs and 15 rushes for 36 yards).
Despite the key personnel losses, coaching changes, home field advantage, and all of the other factors that may or may not be a deciding factor in this game, the outcome essentially comes down to how well Clemson can perform on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They were abused by the Aggies last year, which was the biggest factor in the final score.
It seems the fronts have been the storyline entering the past few seasons. The difference this year is there finally is some depth on the offensive line and more athleticism on the defensive line. The players have also adjusted and bought into the new systems, which goes to show that shaking up a staff can sometimes be a good thing even if there is an existing comfort level.
Be it senior leadership, the changes brought about by the new staff members, or any of a number of other intangibles, something tells me this team is going to fare much better this time around. Texas A&M is a very good team that will make its share of big plays Saturday night but Clemson will somehow find a way to make a statement in an opener for the first time in years. The Tigers win 35-31.