CLEMSON - One of the first edicts from head coach Tommy Bowden heading into the 2005 season was that his offense had to take better care of the football.
The Tigers languished near the bottom of the NCAA Division I-A schools in turnover margin for much of 2004, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst's 17 interceptions (compared to seven TD passes) one of the main reasons the team struggled in that category.
Whitehurst has been much better through seven games in 2005, throwing only five picks compared to eight touchdown passes. His 67.4 completion percentage is 17 points higher than in 2003. And - despite some complaints that Rob Spence's offense doesn't allow him to throw downfield enough - Whitehurst's total passing yardage (1,657) and yards per game average (236.7) are both good enough for third in the ACC.
Whitehurst's turnaround has been most beneficial to Bowden's wishes. Clemson is third in the nation this season in fewest turnovers, and No. 11 in turnover margin.
But while Whitehurst's turnaround has been impressive, those players manning one particular position have been chugging along quietly, protecting the football as they go, flying under the radar in the process.
Clemson's running backs, who have lost a grand total of one fumble in the last 31 games - a streak which dates back to the first game of the 2003 season.
Pressed for a reason why his running backs have been so good at protecting the football, Bowden's first thought was to his coaching staff - in particular, running backs coach Burton Burns.
"Obviously the backs have changed (over the years) so I think it's coaching," he said following Wednesday's workout. "It's not like we've had a dominant back, a four-year starter who's gotten most of the carries; kind of like Charlie at quarterback. I'd say it would be more coach Burns and his efforts.
"That's a pretty good record."
Bowden said freshmen Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham will remain the starters on the kickoff return team for the second straight week. Kelly will continue to back up Chansi Stuckey on punt returns.
Running back James Davis, still recovering from the broken wrist he suffered Oct. 13 at N.C. State, is scheduled to be re-evaluated on Friday. However, Davis is listed as doubtful for the game, and Bowden still doesn't expect him to play.
"He just stands over there (in practice) and watches)," said Bowden. "You should see him with that big cast on. It's like he's running around out there trying to claw somebody."
Cole Chason will remain the starting punter at Georgia Tech Saturday, with backup Jimmy Manners waiting in the wings should he falter.
Bowden said at the moment it would take either wide margin on the scoreboard or another poor outing by Chason before he would feel comfortable giving Manners a shot.