The epiphany dawned on me while I was walking from Lot 4 up the hills around the South Stands entrance to the Bob Bradley Press Box. It made me feel like Mike Hammer might while stumbling across the smoking revolver in a Mickey Spillane novel. In this case, there was no smoking revolver that garnered my attention. Instead it was the realization that somewhere a wager was being placed.
A smile lit up my face while I looked around for someone to share my newfound knowledge with, momentarily forgetting I walked alone. “Oh, well,” I muttered under my breath forcing myself to remain content that I was onto something. My stride quickened as the wheels in my head continued to turn, all while I listened intently to the conversations going on amongst the Tiger fans who ate fried chicken and drank beers under and around their respective tailgate tents.
“I’ve got fifty-bucks that says Nebraska will win it all,” one man said while wiping the froth of a cold brew from his lips. “Their schedule is much easier than the ‘Noles, besides…” he continued. But it was too late. I disconnected from that conversation since it was not the one I was looking for.
A few spots down I refocused my energies. “Twenty dollars? You’re on. The Tigers will take care of business in Charlottesville and Chapel Hill,” the older gentleman was saying between taking bites from what looked like a chili-cheese dog. “We’re rolling into Tallahassee 10-0…” again the sounds drowned away as I dismissed the expectations of an obvious diehard Tiger optimist as another conversation I was not looking for.
Truth be told, the only place I might hear the conversation my ears and imagination longed for was in a room my Press Pass would not allow me access to. That, of course, is the Tigers locker room, where the entrance is carefully guarded, especially just before Clemson and The Citadel players take to Frank Howard Field so the outcome of the Tigers’ season opener may be determined.
The facts that inspired my revelation are simple. Thanks to graduation, this season Coaches Bowden and Rodriguez are looking for key replacements to power their Ferrari of an offense. The pistons that are missing? Brian Wofford and Mal Lawyer, the most productive receiving duo to ever run patterns for Clemson. Last season, they combined for 99 grabs, Wofford snagging 60 for 793 yards and Lawyer reeling in 39 for 396 yards. Each accounted for 3 scores.
My revelation? Since everyone in the Tigers’ locker room focused their energies all pre-season on being better than they were in their 1999 6-6 campaign, there are at least 100 receptions up for grabs this fall for any willing body, thanks to the graduation of Wofford and Lawyer. That being the case, I just knew our competitive receiving corps had to be gnawing at the bit, each hoping to be a beneficiary of Wofford and Lawyer’s departure.
In fact, boys being boys, each had to be huddled together in one of the solitary corners of the locker room while bantering over who will be the one to step up and claim the most of those missing receptions as his own this year. Can’t you just picture it? Finally, one of them gets fed up with the dialogue and says, “Enough’s enough. We’ll settle this the old fashioned way. Each man ponies up $100 and the guy who makes most of the catches that would have been Brian and Mal’s takes home the pot. Put your money where your mouth is.”
I can picture it. What I was having trouble picturing was the next scene. You know…the one where the receiver most wanting to gain an edge on his teammates decides to cut the quarterback in on the potential pot makes the offer. This scene was not as easy to imagine.
After Clemson disposed of The Citadel in a 38-0 pasting, it only took a glance at the play-by-play summary for me to decide who the schemer was. Jackie Robinson? No. Being a former high school teammate of the starting quarterback makes Jackie feel secure enough not to offer a share of the potential pot. Cross him off of the list. Matt Bailey? Being a starter, Matt’s got to be thinking he’ll see his fair share of passes this season. That type of thinking could distract him from plotting. Who could it be?
His name did not occur to me at first since Woody only targeted him once during the entire first half. Then when I began reading the plays from the 3rd quarter, it hit me. Simmons passes incomplete to Reames. Simmons passes incomplete to Reames. A little later, Simmons passes complete to Reames for 14. The 4th quarter comes around. Simmons passes incomplete to Reames. Six plays later, Simmons passes incomplete to Reames. Coincidence? I think not.
Here is a guy who is being used primarily for returns. Being a former high school quarterback himself, Joe Don realizes the majority of scoring plays comes from the offense and not the special teams. He also recognizes that if he looks good with the second offensive unit, he could be considered to play with the first unit as well. How’s a good way to look good with the second unit? Tell the second unit QB about the pool and cut him in on the action. Joe Don would also be strengthening his odds of winning the pool were a quarterback controversy ever to seriously emerge, God forbid. Could Joe Don be that smart? There was only one way for me to find out.
Blame it on my imagination, but I had betting-on-the-brain come time for the player interviews. “So,” I said to Willie Simmons, “I noticed you threw quite a few balls Joe Don Reames’ way this evening. You and him have some sort of locker room bet going on?”
Willie shot me a quick smile and went on about his business, answering the question. “No, he ran good routes and was wide open a couple of times. I just missed him. It felt like I tried to lob it because my arm was too juiced up. I was pressing and trying to do too much. We’ll go work on it at practice Monday and try to correct those things we did wrong. Hopefully, I’ll hit ‘em next time.”
Pretty smart of Willie to play it off. He would not want to blow his cover at first. However, I’m not sold on his innocence and believe he could fail to hold up under more serious questioning. I decided to be more subtle when speaking with Joe Don—the main suspect.
“I was Willie’s third progression on each of those attempts,” Reames tells me, trying to play it off. “He’s already past his throwing steps and it’s hard for him to turn his body and get the ball to me. It’s also a lot of pressure on him in his first real game. It’s all right, he’ll come around.”
I start to get a little bummed out, thinking my imagination’s just running wild once again. That was when Reames’ slipped up and made me realize I was onto something.
“But that’s four passes coming my way, whether they were overthrown or underthrown. The more you watch the more you learn and that’s something we can work on at practice this week. It’ll help me towards getting into the starting rotation,” Joe Don said.
Aha! There could be more to this than meets the eye. So if you happen to witness Joe Don Reames haul in a touchdown pass anytime this football season, pay close attention to the events that transpire on the sidelines following the score.
My bet is that you will see whichever quarterback had the good fortune of throwing it Reames’ way sidle up next to him. Of course a slap on the back or pat on the rear end will come next. Then the lucky QB will lean close and say something in Joe Don’s earhole. This is when you should lift your binoculars and make an effort at being a lip-reader.
“Good grab” or “nice pattern” may be the comments you make out. However, if I were an oddsmaker, I would expect you to see something more along the lines of, “Where’s my share?” Either way, that’s good thinking on Joe Don’s part.