Tiger Line Is No Pushover Anymore


by - Correspondent -
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Ron West was a member of two Gator Bowl teams as a reserve offensive lineman for Clemson in 1977 and 1978.

CLEMSON - Ask Ron West to compare his current offensive line to the group
Tommy Bowden inherited two years ago, and he shakes his head.


"No comparison," he said following Thursday's practice. "It's like night and
day."


A young, smallish group in 1999, West's line has evolved into a much larger,
veteran unit which, for the first time in Bowden's three years, is considered
a team strength rather than a question mark.


The most remarkable part of the whole scenario lies in the fact that three of
the starting five - center Kyle Young and guards Will Merritt and T.J.
Watkins - have been starters since Bowden arrived. A fourth, tackle Akil
Smith, started as a sophomore in 1999 before sitting out last year with a
blood clot in his lung.


Smith, who lost his starting position in the spring, has battled back in the
final days of preseason camp and will be part of a three-tackle rotation West
will employ Saturday against Central Florida. Derrick Brantley and Gary Byrd
will start at the tackles, but Smith will see significant minutes.


The same goes for Greg Walker backing up Merritt at guard, and Brian Outlaw
behind Young at center.


  Tigers expecting big things from this group.


"We've had games in the past where because of the score maybe we've played 10
guys," West said. "But we've never gone into a game with a plan to play eight
regardless of the score. But we are this week."


The evolution of the line has been a slow, steady process.


A group that might have averaged 260 pounds two years ago now pushes 290.
With the weight has come no noticeable loss of agility, and the addition of
Brantley from the junior college ranks a year ago, along with the maturity of
Walker and Byrd, have given the Tigers a depth Bowden would love to see
blanket his entire program.


"They all grew up," West said. "All of the sudden you've got more guys to
work with, and they're all bigger and stronger. The situation we were in (in
1999) was they were all young and all in a situation where they had to play
very early. Some of the guys weren't ready as other guys, as far as strength.


"So we became known as a very small group."


NOTES


- Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said junior Eric Meekins will get the
start at free safety ahead of sophomore Marcus Houskins.


The two have fought a spirited battle for the position all camp, and in the
end Meekins' coverage skills won out over Houskins' hitting.


"Let's put it this way," Herring said. "When we're in halves coverage, he's
in halves more than Houskins."


- Wide receivers coach Rick Stockstill refused to name a starter in the
battle between senior Matt Bailey and true freshman Airese Currie.


However both Stockstill and Bowden anticipated playing time will be evenly
split between the two Saturday.


- Bowden proclaimed the preseason a success, except for the season-ending
injuries to linebacker Altroy Bodrick and receiver Kevin Youngblood.


"That's the first time I've had that happen here," he said. "Other than that
we're in good shape. Everybody will be there except those two guys."

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