CLEMSON - Tommy Bowden entered his fifth spring as Clemson's head football coach determined to improve his team's running game.
Saturday, in front of 5,000-plus fans at Riggs Field, Bowden showed that determination with a run-oriented attack during the annual Orange and White spring game. Clemson ran the ball 73 times for 181 yards and one touchdown, a one-yard plunge by second-team fullback Cliff Harrell, in the 16-0 Orange (offense) victory.
And while the product on the field often was bland - by design, mind you - Bowden seemed pleased with what he saw.
"We wanted to get some things accomplished in the running game," he said. "I wasn't happy with our production last year. I wasn't happy with our short-yardage play last year. So we spent a lot of time working on that this spring."
In doing so, starting quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said, both sides of the ball seemed to improve their toughness.
"When you're going at each other like that every day, you have to be tough," Whitehurst said. "I think it helped us both offensively and defensively."
The defense seemed to benefit most from the changes.
John Lovett's unit held the offense to an average of 2.4 yards per carry Saturday and forced four turnovers - three interceptions (one each by Tavaughn Monts, Tye Hill and Jamaal Fudge) and a fumble recovery by Monts.
The only real spark showed by the first-team offense came on the final drive of the day, in which Whitehurst drove the team 99 yards for a touchdown on the game's final play - a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Browning.
Until then, the first team offense had mustered just three points on an Aaron Hunt field 31-yard field goal with 2:24 left in the third quarter. That score came with Willie Simmons at quarterback, and also proved to be the only success Hunt had all afternoon. The senior kicker capped an inconsistent spring by missing 3-of-4 field goal attempts (36, 28 and 41 yards).
"I was happy to see the low score," Bowden said. "Defense wins championships, and that's what we're trying to build here. A championship defense."
The only other real question mark surrounding the team at the moment appears to be the future of Simmons.
The fifth-year senior quarterback, who lost his job to Whitehurst (14-of-20, 160 yards, touchdown, interception) after eight games a season ago, alternated series' with the rising sophomore and performed reasonably well - connection on 7-of-10 passes for 74 yards and an interception.
His desire to play in every game this coming season may prove to be the sticking point as to whether Simmons stays at Clemson or transfers to a Division 1-AA school. Bowden said the future will be discussed sometime this week.
"We have 15-minute meetings scheduled with every single player," he said. "I don't know when Willie's will be yet, but we'll discuss these things at that time."
In the only apparent injury Saturday, starting tailback Yusef Kelly suffered a sprained ankle when a lineman fell on his foot. His status isn't immediately known.