Three Games Into Season, Tigers Earning Back Respect


by - Correspondent -
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CLEMSON - If there is one consistent theme running through the Clemson
football camp so far this season, it's the drive to gain respect.


The defense wants it, especially after two consecutive seasons below
standard. The offense wants it, hoping to prove it can carve an identity
that's not "all style and no substance," as charged by one national writer
before the season began.


And the coaching staff wants it, albeit perhaps in smaller, more
sophisticated ways.


Whatever the reason, after three games the Tigers (2-1) appear to have won
back the respect of their fans.


Today Death Valley. Tomorrow, perhaps, the polls.


"This year's team seems to be trying to prove something every week," head
coach Tommy Bowden said. "(Quarterback) Willie (Simmons) has waited three
years to have a team to do something with. Defensively, you take away four
turnovers and they hold that Georgia Tech offense to less than 200 yards.


"They're accepting the challenge to gain some respect."


Most of the early-season accolades have been showered on the resurgent
defense, led by new coordinator John Lovett.


The front four is pressuring the quarterback, which helps the secondary in
coverage, which frees the linebackers to make plays. Everything the Tigers
defense was a year ago, it is proving to be the antithesis in 2002.


Why?


Bowden said it starts with his seniors.


"Nick Eason, Bryant McNeal, Rodney Thomas, Eric Meekins, Altroy
Bodrick...there's five of them right there who have been around a long time
and keep their composure well," he said. "They feel pretty comfortable with
the scheme we're running now, and feel like no matter what situation comes up
on the field, coach Lovett will have a solution. So they can say 'Hey, let's
just play hard.'"


The composure is becoming more noticeable in junior quarterback Willie
Simmons, too.


After three games as Clemson's starting quarterback, Simmons has shown
himself to be a quick study, not one given to repeating the same mistakes
game after game. Further, he is showing himself to be leader on the field,
and three instances in last Saturday's win over Georgia Tech bear witness to
that fact:


- In the first quarter, backed up at their own 23-yard line, the Tigers ran
an inside handoff to wide receiver Derrick Hamilton as he came in motion from
left to right. Hamilton continued right until he ran into traffic, cut all
the way back across the field and broke to the left sideline where he needed
one block inside the Tech 10-yard line to ensure the 77-yard touchdown run.


Who was there to throw the block? Willie Simmons, who instead of watching
from the backfield sprinted downfield to make himself part of the play.


- Fourth and goal from the Tech 2-yard line just before the end of the first
half. Simmons is sent on a sprint roll to his left in hopes he can turn the
corner and get to the pylon for a touchdown. Soon it becomes obvious he won't
get there, and it appears the Yellow Jackets will stop the play short.


But Simmons had other ideas. Just before stepping out of bounds he deftly
flipped a backhanded shovel pass into the end zone that freshman tight end
Bobby Williamson caught in front of a defender. It proved to be a huge moment
in the game, as things worked out.


Brett Favre never was so inventive.


- Finally, Simmons' ability to keep the play alive proved golden again in the
third quarter.


Rolling to his right, Simmons eluded pressure and appeared to have a nice
10-to-15 yard running lane ahead of him. But instead of tucking the ball away
and scrambling, he motioned with his off-hand for wide receiver Tony Elliott
to break off his route and go deep. Elliott did, Simmons threw, and 44-yards
later the Tigers had scored again to go up 24-6.


"When we called that play on the goal line, he just had that look in his eyes
like he could make something happen," Bowden said. "He was creative, and he
used his athleticism and intelligence to make the play. He might not have
done that two weeks ago. Week by week he's eliminating mistakes."


As for the coaches?


Respect, like victories, comes a week at a time.


"We're going for win number three," Bowden said. "Different teams have
different maturity levels, and that's how we're approaching this season with
this team. Every game is a one-game season. That's how I've talked to them so
far this year."


Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Florence Morning News. He also hosts SportsTalk from 10 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.

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