CLEMSON - As Clemson's defense continues to operate under a microscope during
preseason, one fact is becoming abundantly clear:
The better the push up front, the better the Tigers will perform.
This isn't a new strategy, by any means. For all the speed and ability at the
skill positions in today's brand of football, the game is still won and lost
in the trenches.
At Clemson, that old scenario has never been more true. Coaching staff and
fans alike cringe at the memories of Georgia Tech's George Godsey and Florida
State's Chris Weinke standing in the pocket last season, seemingly able to
order lunch while choosing which receiver to hit.
The lack of a pass rush from the interior line meant Clemson was forced to
bring heat with the linebackers, which left the secondary in single coverage
more often than head coach Tommy Bowden or defensive coordinator Reggie
Herring wanted. And even the best defensive back can't maintain coverage on a
top-notch receiver for five or six seconds.
Add it all up and it was a recipe for disaster in 2000.
If 2001 is to be any different, the pressure lies squarely on the shoulders
of Clemson's defensive front four.
"They've performed good (in camp), but it gets to this stage about every year
where you're waiting to make the final evaluation off live bullets," Bowden
said after Thursday's practice. "They've had some very productive days
against our offense...now it's just about game day.
"I think we'll find out in the first game because I think (Central Florida's)
going to throw it 50 times a game. That will be a good indicator."
The front four has been retooled after losing players to both graduation and
the legal system.
Nick Eason (6-foot-4, 285 pounds), a speed-rushing defensive end a year ago,
has been moved inside to tackle, where he's joined by senior Jovon Bush (6-5,
300). The starting defensive ends, were the season to begin today, would be
junior Bryant McNeal (6-5, 230) and sophomore Khaleed Vaughn (6-4, 260).
The svelteness, comparatively speaking, of that group contributes to
Herring's assessment that this may be the fastest defensive team in recent
memory. However size, strength and technique also come into play, and in
order to improve on last season's performance, all four players must improve
in each of those areas.
"Bush has got to step up and be a productive player," Bowden said. "He's a
fifth-year senior so he's been here for a while. He's a big play potential
guy, but right now his statistics don't match his size. That's what he's got
to show this year.
"Khaleed Vaughn's only a redshirt sophomore but he has big play potential
because of his speed...he's a great practice player. Nick Eason's going to a
new position, but he's got the talent to make plays...Bryant McNeal's the
same way. Last year he was kind of a non-factor, and he needs to be a factor
going into his fourth year."
- Senior running back Travis Zachery missed his first practice of the season
Thursday, sitting out due to a slight ankle sprain he suffered Wednesday. He
is expected to return in a day or two.
- Senior Chad Carson was named a preseason candidate for the Butkus Award,
the honor bestowed each season on the nation's best linebacker.
- The team will run through game-day preparation today in Death Valley, in
what players have termed the "Beanie Bowl." The session will be a dry run of
game day, from pregame warmups to testing the communication system.