CLEMSON - Poll any group of Clemson fans as to the prospects of the 2001
Tigers, and the responses received will be as varied as they are sincere.
The orange-bleeding fanatic will say 10-1 at the worst, with a Bowl
Championship Series bid all but a mortal lock. The overly-optimistic, but not
quite fanatical supporter feels 9-2 is a real possibility, with the BCS
probably another year away.
The realist will counter with a guess of 8-3, maybe 7-4, based on the number
of question marks facing this team as the season opener draws near. Then
there's the pessimist, who sees youth and inexperience in key positions and
fears a 6-5 season may be on tap.
So by the time Clemson and South Carolina walk off the field at
Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia in late Nov., which fan will be correct?
At this stage, it could be any one of them.
For as much as the level of talent has risen heading into this, Tommy
Bowden's third year, the realist is already correct in one sense:
There are several question marks hanging over this Clemson team, questions
that linger even as expectations are running rampant.
Clemson will be at its most comfortable when it has the ball.
A Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, the biggest, most experienced
offensive line in Bowden's tenure and a wealth of raw talent at the skill
positions combine to give the Tigers a potentially devastating offense.
The offensive line, led by seniors Kyle Young (center), Will Merritt and T.J.
Watkins (both guards) will average 291 pounds, and could very well be the
most agile, best conditioned front five in the ACC.
Senior running back Travis Zachery rushed for 1,027 yards and 13 touchdowns a
year ago, while adding another 313 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver.
His work ethic has been so strong this preseason that head coach Tommy Bowden
said he would "be surprised if Travis doesn't have a great season."
Only a gimpy ankle kept senior Woody Dantzler from becoming the first
quarterback in NCAA history from throwing for 2,000 yards and rushing for
1,000 in the same season. As it was, Dantzler thrust himself into the
national spotlight by throwing for 1,871 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven
interceptions. He completed 56 percent of his passes (137-244), and added a
team-leading 1,028 net rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
But a closer look inside those numbers shows Dantzler piled up much of his
best totals against the weaker teams on Clemson's schedule.
Through the first seven weeks, Dantzler threw for 1,271 yards, nine
touchdowns and just four interceptions, while rushing for 732 yards on 105
carries (seven yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns.
But of those seven opponents, only N.C. State finished with a record above
In the final five games, North Carolina (6-5), Georgia Tech (9-3), Florida
State (10-2), South Carolina (8-4) and Virginia Tech (11-1) held
Dantzler to just 209 yards on 68 carries (three yards per carry) and a
Throwing out of necessity rather than as a luxury, Dantzler amassed just 600
passing yards over the five games, completing 46-97 (47 percent) attempts
with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Dantzler injured his ankle with 6:32 left in the first half against North
Carolina, his team down 17-0. Redshirt freshman Willie Simmons came off the
bench to throw four touchdown passes to lead the Tigers to a 38-24 comeback
In each of the next two games (Georgia Tech and Florida State) Dantzler was
benched for ineffectiveness. Against the Yellow Jackets, Simmons again came
off the bench to spark Clemson, throwing what appeared to be a game-winning
touchdown to Rod Gardner with 1:52 remaining in the game. Tech would
eventually drive the length of the field and score with seven seconds
remaining for a 31-28 victory.
So the questions, then, are these:
Which Woody Dantzler will fans see as the season wears on? Can the senior
quarterback prove that once his running lanes are taken away, he can beat an
opponent with his arm? Is the Heisman hype for real in 2001?
Answers may come as his wide receiver class matures.
Roscoe Crosby will be the first true freshman to start on offense since Anthony Downs in 1994. |
With no Rod Gardner (58 catches, 1,050 yards, seven TDs) to depend on and
Kevin Youngblood out for the year with a broken leg, true freshmen Roscoe
Crosby and Airese Currie, along with Ben Hall at tight end, are going to be
asked to grow up in a hurry.
If they do, and junior Jackie Robinson can have a big year at Gardner's old
spot, Clemson's offense has a chance to be anywhere from good to dominant.
Only time will tell.
The questions facing defensive coordinator Reggie Herring aren't nearly as
ambiguous as those on the offensive side of the ball. In fact, there's really
only one that matters.
Simply put, can Clemson's defense find a way to eliminate the big plays which
torched it over the final five games of 2000?
Herring is betting that a slight change in the Tigers' defense scheme will do
just that, even though the unit returns just four starters from a year ago.
Gone are big-play performers Keith Adams and Robert Carswell, and in their
place come young - albeit talented - players.
Sophomore John Leake, whose preseason play in camp has earned him the
nickname "The Freak," will occupy Herring's new star safety position. A cross
between a linebacker and a defensive back, the star safety will allow Leake
to either rush the passer or drop in coverage, in effect giving Clemson a
constant nickel defense without having to substitute.
Integrated into the new 4-2-5 alignment, the star safety is part of Herring's
"bend but don't break" philosophy: Take away the big plays, force to opposing
offense to make more plays in order to score.
Leake's performance, along with Altroy Bodrick's season-ending knee injury,
move senior Braxton K. Williams back to linebacker. He'll play there beside
fellow senior and 2000 leading tackler Chad Carson (156).
The secondary is young, but talented. Only senior cornerback Charles Hafley
is ripe with experience. But sophomore free safety Marcus Houskin's vicious
hitting has catapulted him into a starting spot, beating out junior Eric
The key to this unit, however, will be the defensive line.
A smallish group by comparison to others in the league, the Tigers are
betting speed, strength and technique make up for a lack of size. Junior Nick
Eason (6-4, 285) moves from defensive end to tackle, where he'll be paired
with senior Jovon Bush (6-5, 300). The starting ends, junior Bryant McNeal
(6-5, 230) and Khaleed Vaughn (6-4, 260), will be expected to improve
Clemson's pass rush from the outside.
If the front four can't get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, even Herring's
new scheme will be of little help. Another performance like 2000, and
Clemson's defense could be in for a long season.
For the first time in two years, Bowden goes into the regular season happy
with his place kicker.
Sophomore Aaron Hunt was just 10-16 on field goal attempts last season and
didn't try a kick longer than 41 yards because of a preseason leg injury. But
it's likely he's already made the biggest kick of his life, a 25-yard
game-winner with three seconds left against bitter rival South Carolina.
His kicking in this preseason prompted Bowden to say he would use Hunt for
attempts in the 50-52 yard range this season.
Transfer punter Wynn Kopp (Georgia) also has had an impressive preseason. The
junior left-footer has given Clemson's special teams a new dimension with the
hang time on his kicks, and his two years of experience in the Southeastern
Conference should prove to be invaluable.
The return game should be solid, as well. Brian Mance and Joe Don Reames are
back returning punts, each having taken one back for a touchdown last year.
Redshirt freshman Derrick Hamilton, along with Crosby and Currie, could also
see extended action returning either punts or kickoffs, or both.
Coming Next Week: Game-By-Game Predictions
2001 Clemson Football Schedule
09/01/2001 Central Florida 1:00 PM ET
09/08/2001 Wofford 1:00 PM ET
09/15/2001 Duke 1:00 PM ET
09/22/2001 Virginia TBA
09/29/2001 at Georgia Tech TBA
10/13/2001 at No Carolina St TBA
10/20/2001 North Carolina TBA
10/27/2001 at Wake Forest TBA
11/03/2001 Florida State TBA
11/10/2001 at Maryland TBA
11/17/2001 at South Carolina TBA
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Daily Messenger and the Florence Morning News. He also hosts SportsTalk from 10 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9.