TigerSource looks at the starters, the depth, the newcomers and the recruiting board at linebacker.
Leroy Hill could not have been a bigger surprise than he was in 2003. It's hard to believe that he had never started a game at Clemson until last season. However, he emerged as one of the top linebackers in the country after an unbelievable junior season. The numbers can tell the story. Last year Hill started every game and had double-digit tackles in all but three contest. He was second in the nation in tackles for loss a year ago with 27. How did Hill play in the big games? Well, in the Georgia game he recorded 16 tackles. In the USC game he had another 15 tackles and four behind the line of scrimmage. What else needs to be said about the pre-season Butkus Award candidate?
Eric Sampson returns for his senior season. The Jacksonville native has started 20 games in his Clemson career and is known for his intensity and versatility. Defensive coordinator John Lovett uses Sampson in different ways in pass coverage and Sampson excels. It was his interception that saved the Georgia Tech game in 2003 and a his deflection on a pass on a fake field goal was a big key to the USC game the same year. We think he can have a big senior season at the WHIP position.
Anthony Waters enters fall camp listed as the starter at the JACK linebacker. The sophomore played 172 snaps last season and had 35 tackles. He is the best looking future prospect for the Tigers at linebacker. He is athletic enough to become a good pass rusher off of the edge. Waters will battle Nick Watkins throughout the camp for the starting nod against Wake Forest.
Nick Watkins will get a long look from linebacker coach David Blackwell this August. In his red-shirt season Watkins impressed the coaching staff. He is a big hitter and plays hard. The Louisiana product will have to become more consistent and gain experience but the staff is really encouraged by his potential.
Tramaine Billie was one of the biggest surprises of the freshman class last season. He was recruited partly as a running back but the switch to the WHIP position looked simple for this hard hitter. He was just one of two true freshmen on defense to see action last season. In his first action against Georgia Tech he had six tackles in only ten plays. He made plays with little opportunity last season. He made a tackle every 5.9 plays as a true freshman. It was also his hard hitting that grabbed the staff's attention. Billie has great speed and should continue to develop into a future star on this defense.
David Dunham is another hard hitter. Last year he started the season at fullback but became the second-team inside linebacker as the season progressed. It was Dunham's recovery of Darian Durant's fumble that saved the UNC win. His hard hitting is also a trademark of the special teams.
Roosevelt Nelson is listed behind Hill and Dunham and has mainly been a very good special teams player for the Tigers. Barring injury, his role will have to change after Hill leaves Clemson next season.
Lionel Richardson is a former walk-on that saw action in over 200 plays last year. He started four games and is a dependable player. He will battle Billie for back-up snaps and for the starter's spot at WHIP when Sampson graduates next season.
Courtney Vincent is a good looking linebacker prospect that impressed coaches at last year's Shrine Bowl. Some coaches thought he had better instincts than some of the higher recruited linebackers on that team. The staff is excited about his potential but depth may force a red-shirt season this year.
Alex Pearson was coming off of knee surgery heading into last year but he recovered well. Pearson is an inside linebacker prospect that excels against the run. He is a tough hard-nosed prospect that some thought could move to fullback in college. Like Vincent, Pearson should red-shirt in 2004.
The Recruiting Board
Josh Miller (6-1, 215) of Manning, SC is considered the top linebacker prospect in the state of South Carolina heading into his senior season. Miller has offers from Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and North Carolina. Burton Burns is recruiting him for Clemson, Kevin Steele is recruiting him for FSU and Rick Stockstill is his South Carolina recruiter. He played running back until last season and will stay there on offense but when he moved to linebacker the recruiters took notice. Miller is one of the top five prospects in South Carolina. Clemson has agood lead here.
Antonio Clay (6-1, 210) of Jeffersonville, GA is another player Clemson is battling several national powers for as he was once committed to Oklahoma, but he has since backed off. He has offers from Clemson, Miami, Oklahoma, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Oklahoma St., Georgia Tech, South Carolina, and Florida. He currently lists his top five as Miami, Oklahoma, LSU, Georgia, and Clemson in no order. "I have no interest in dragging the process out too long. I will try to visit my top five, and then commit hopefully during the season." The linebacker is from Twiggs County Georgia, and finds a resemblance to home at Clemson. "When I was there at the one day camp, it was cool. The trees and the calmness of the area reminded me of the Twiggs." Coach Blackwell and Ron West are recruiting Clay for the Tigers.
Ryan Stamper (6-3, 215) of Jacksonville, FL recorded 150 tackles and 12 sacks last season. Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina, South Carolina, N.C. State and Georgia Tech have offered Stamper. Auburn currently leads Clemson for his commitment. Stamper is First Coast High School teammates with current Clemson commitment Paul Muse.
Alonzo Higgins (6-3, 230) of Greenwood, SC is one of the South's top linebacker prospects. He will receive a ton of recruiting attention if and when his academic situation improves.
These are just four linebackers we will follow this season. We think the Tigers would like to sign three linebackers in February.