CLEMSON - The scene has been a common one this fall.
The lines square off, the ball is snapped, and an offensive tackle tries in vain to get a piece of J.J. Howard as the Clemson defensive end flies around him on a direct route to the quarterback.
Sure, it's only practice. But the way Howard figures it, those kind of plays against his teammates are just a dress rehearsal for the regular season opener vs. Georgia on Aug. 30.
"I've waited a long time," he said. "Now it's my turn."
Long time indeed.
Howard, a fifth-year senior, has earned varsity letters as a backup in each of the last three seasons. While that might be a nice track record for many players entering their final season, there always seems to be more asked of Howard.
Perhaps it is because he may be, arguably, the best athlete ever to play for the Tigers. Howard is the only player in Clemson football history to bench press 450 pounds, vertical jump 44 inches, and run a sub 4.5 in the 40.
Yet despite that athleticism, Howard has continued to find obstacles in his path to a starting position.
Except, perhaps, for this season.
Buoyed by his most intense offseason workout ever, Howard reported to fall camp hovering around 250 pounds, or 25 pounds above his playing weight from a year ago. Already blessed with great strength, Howard's added bulk could make him a devastating speed rushing end for the Tigers in 2003.
"The best part is I haven't lost any speed," said Howard. "I put on 25 pounds, and my 40 time went from 4.39 to 4.4. That's it."
In practice, at least, Howard looks like the whole package.
He has routinely recorded sack after sack in live scrimmage situations this fall, and rarely a day goes by that head coach Tommy Bowden doesn't praise something Howard did in that day's practice.
So far, the Clemson coach likes what he sees.
"He's got the potential to be an impact player for us," Bowden said. "He's a fifth-year senior, he's bigger and stronger. He's had a great camp so far. Now let's see if he can do it once the season starts.
"We need him to play well, along with the rest of the defensive line. That front four will help decide how good we are."
That Bowden is counting so much on him speaks volumes about how far Howard has come.
As a redshirt freshman he played tight end and special teams. Moving to defensive end the next year, he spent two seasons behind Bryant McNeal, now with the Denver Broncos. Howard played at least 10 snaps in every game a year ago, with a high of 27 on two different occasions.
He finished last season with 34 tackles, 17 of which were first hits. He has three career quarterback sacks.
Not bad numbers for a backup. But now, as a starting defensive end being pushed by junior Mo Fountain, the pressure is on for Howard to fulfill the expectations many have had for him all along.
To his credit, he seems to welcome the pressure.
"I want to show everyone I can be a big part of this defense," he said. "If I do my job, then that means the whole line should play well. If we do that, the defense plays well, and that will help us win games.
"That's all we're focused on. Winning games."