Harbison using the spring to find cornerbacks, has depth at safety

by - Senior Writer -
The Tigers will miss the experience of corners like Chris Chancellor

CLEMSON – Spring practice begins in another 10 days, and Clemson secondary coach Charlie Harbison will be the puzzle master, moving pieces here and there and trying to find the right fit for the players he has on hand as he tries to replace two starters at cornerback.

Harbison has the luxury of seeing safeties DeAndre McDaniel and Marcus Gilchrist return for their senior seasons, but must find replacements for graduated corners Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler, who combined to start 84 games for the Tigers.

“Spring practice will be a big challenge for us,” Harbison said on Tuesday. “We are going to get guys out there and compete and see who will step up. The biggest thing we lose is experience – playing time. [Coty] Sensabaugh, [Xavier] Brewer and [Byron] Maxwell all played, but we have to get some depth, and that is what this spring will be about. Gilchrist is also a guy that we could see at corner.

“At this point, I think we’ll be OK with what we have, because we have some versatile guys. If we have to move a guy we can. We will see this spring. We’ve got talent that can play, and you have pieces of the puzzle. You get the best players on the field. You can move and match.”

Any talk about the secondary begins with McDaniel, who had a breakout season in 2009. He was named a First Team All-American by the Football Writers Association, tied for second in the nation in interceptions per game with eight in 13 games, and will be a prime candidate for the Thorpe Award [given to the nation’s top defensive back] in 2010.

Harbison said that for McDaniel to improve in 2010, he can’t rest on the laurels that were earned in 2009.

“I am going to challenge him on everything he did this past year,” Harbison said. “He knows he can’t be complacent. You have to be the best you can be on every play. But not just him – the whole secondary. There were a lot of questions last year with McDaniel [moving to safety], but he is a great athlete and he made a great transition. “

Harbison said that having players like McDaniel and Gilchrist, who can move around, is what makes him think he has the pieces, but just needs to find the right places.

“Look at Gilchrist - he was a corner before I came and we moved him to safety last year,” Harbison said. “He has the skills to do that. We cross train kids so that if injuries or graduation happens, we can still get the best kids on the field.”

In addition to Gilchrist and McDaniel at the safety spots, one player that will get a long look is a healthy Spencer Adams, the speedster who missed 2008 because of a torn ACL, and then played in seven games last season as his knee got healthier.

“I think it [the knee injury] held him back more in the spring than in the fall,” Harbison said. “He got stronger as we went into the fall, but we already had a good rotation. He is running track now, which tells me his knee is in good shape. This will be a big spring for him to see where he fits into the rotation.”

Rising sophomore Rashard Hall started seven games at safety last season, and earned First Team Freshman All-American honors by both Scout and College Football News. He also finished 13th in the nation with six interceptions, but the seven games started by Hall came when Clemson started out in a nickel package, and Harbison said he would like to see Hall become more of an every down type of player.

“Hall is a guy that played more 11 [1 RB, 1 TE] than 21 [2 RB, 1 TE],” Harbison said. “That is another situation for the fall, and see how he plays against the 21 personnel is he an every down guy as opposed to an 11. When you get the big boys in there, the two tight ends and the fullback; how can he do then?”

Harbison was asked if he thought that a freshman could come in during the fall camp and make a move, and he answered that if they do, he would think it would come at the corner position and not from the safeties.

“They are still young, but I hope to draw some [playing time] from the corner spot,” he said. “Safeties have so much to think about, from the alignment to route recognition, and there is so much in the system. But you can never tell if a kid can come in and pick the system up and play right away. A corner is a guy that can come in and play pretty fast. I am not going to say a guy will wait a year, I let them determine that when they come in, in August.”

Harbison said that with the safety spots pretty well locked up, he knows the big questions will revolve around finding the best rotation at the corner spots, and he hopes the system can help find the best players.

“Last year, McDaniel and Gilchrist answered all of the questions about safety, and now all of the questions are about the corner,” he said. “One thing I like about this system is that you play at a high tempo, and you need more than two guys. You need seven or eight guys. You noticed we played a lot of guys last year, and that helps from year to year because we have a lot of experience coming back.”

Sensabaugh, a rising junior, had an interception against Florida St. last season and played 142 snaps. Sensabaugh is the speediest of the three main returnees. Xavier Brewer, a rising redshirt sophomore, played 111 snaps last season and had three pass break-ups.

Maxwell will be a senior this season, and has the most experience of the group, with just shy of 1000 snaps in his Clemson career. He had 34 tackles in 2009, and also tallied interceptions in consecutive games against Florida St. and N.C. State. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Maxwell is the largest and most physical of the corners.

Harbison was asked who would be his choice if had to put one corner on a big receiver, like Georgia Tech’s Demaryius Thomas, and he said Maxwell would be the guy.

“Maxwell can run, but he is a big, physical corner,” Harbison said. “He is more aggressive, a big corner. Because he is the biggest corner and he has long reach and can get into a receiver. It is all about hand placement and stuff like that. I believe in matchups. Maxwell is the guy that I could match up on a big receiver right now. But after the spring, I can give you a better answer with Gilchrist, Brewer and Sensabaugh.”

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