5 Questions for the 2002 Clemson Football Season

by - Correspondent -
Will Clemson's offense be better or worse without Woody Dantzler?

1. Will Clemson's offense be better or worse without Woody Dantzler?

The offense has the potential to be better, though whether that potential will be reached remains to be seen.

We know this: Dantzler was an electrifying athlete who's running ability dazzled huge Saturday afternoon crowds time and time again. His performance in back-to-back games against Ga. Tech and N.C. State in 2001 proved to be among the most memorable in recent years.

But though he will go down as one of the greatest players in Clemson history - and the only player in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season - the fact remains that Dantzler could muster only a 6-5 regular season record last year, mostly because the offense became so one-dimensional opposing defenses easily caught up to both he and the Tigers as the season wore on.

With junior Willie Simmons at the helm, the offense will look much different in 2002. In limited playing time over the past two seasons, Simmons has shown the ability to keep passing plays alive by avoiding pressure and, at the same time, keeping his eyes downfield and going through his receiver progression.

With enough mobility to make running a threat, and with deep talent at the skill positions unlike anything Clemson has ever seen before, Simmons might just be poised to show us how Tommy Bowden's offensive scheme really should look.

If, that is, he can stay off his back. Which brings us to...

2. Is there reason to worry about the offensive line?

In a word, yes.

Not so much because of replacing three seniors on the line's interior, though losing that much experience is always a concern. But the starting five spots - center Jermyn Chester, guards Cedric Johnson and Greg Walker, and tackles Gary Byrd and Derrick Brantley - are bigger (averaging 308 pounds per man) and more athletic than the 2001 group.

The problem lies in depth, or more to the point a lack of it.

In a radio interview back in May, Bowden admitted he and his staff had taken another look at their offensive line recruiting strategy and decided some changes needed to be made. Those changes led to a seemingly solid five-man class for 2002 and appears to have them on track for another good class in 2003, but in the interim the team can ill afford any type of serious injury among this group.

True freshman Nathan Bennett has thrust his way into a fight for a backup guard position with junior Nick Black and redshirt freshman Mark Jetton, while William Henry appears to be the only solid backup at tackle and likely will be asked to play both sides.

Walk-on Tommy Sharpe has been surprising in his work at backup center, but the fact remains the drop in size, talent and ability from the No. 1 spots to the backups across the board is huge.

A healthy year and Clemson has a chance to be very good offensively. One or two major injuries, and it's likely to be a long season.

3. How much has the defense improved?

There's no real way of knowing the answer to this question until the team plays for the first time, but all indications point to better things for this much-maligned unit.

Since John Lovett took over last spring, the enthusiasm level has been noticeably higher. That's not so unusual, for anytime a new chief is appointed the remaining Indians find themselves scrambling for job security.

But the young talent thrown into the fire last season is now a year older and, one would think, wiser. The talent at linebacker, for instance, is so deep that senior Altroy Bodrick gladly stepped aside and moved to rover (safety) so more of the young guns could be worked into the defensive game plan. Names like David Dunham, Eric Sampson and Leroy Hill should become well known this season providing support for fellow linebackers John Leake and Rodney Thomas, not to mention the anticipated surge of talent provided by junior college transfers Kelvin Morris and Brandon Jamison.

Two keys on this side of the ball: First, the defensive line must play well. Watch 6-6, 315-pound Donnell Washington as a gauge of the group's success. When he wants to play, he is unstoppable. But how often does he want to play?

Second, the secondary should be much improved. Players have said privately that they learned more under just a few meetings with Lovett than they did all last season with Jack Hines as the position coach.

4. Who has a chance to be a surprise breakout performer this season?

Just a few names to watch here: Freshman wide receiver Kelvin Grant, tailback Bernard Rambert, tight end Ben Hall, defensive tackle Nick Eason and Bodrick.

5. Once and for all, is Tommy Bowden on the hotseat?

In a word, no. At least not yet.

Though the natives are a bit restless after last season's 6-5 finish, the fact is Bowden appears to be bringing in the kind of athletes who can make this system run. He has maintained all along that once he got the right players, Clemson's glory days could be revisited.

Perhaps more important to his future, however, is that certain key people inside the athletic administration have bought into his idea that in order to recruit the best of the best from around the country, the Heritage Building and other facility upgrades are necessary and need to be completed as soon as possible. That support alone, if ground is broken on time, should buy Bowden plenty of time.

However, the bottom line is wins. And a slip this year and/or next could cause those allies in administration to rethink their support.

If that happens, all bets are off.

Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Florence Morning News. He also hosts SportsTalk from 10 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.

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