Question #4: How Do You Replace The ACC Defensive Player Of The Year?
It is never easy to replace the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, but that is the task facing Clemson this season. Leroy Hill has moved on to the NFL after leading Clemson with 106 tackles in 2004. The returning linebackers may not have the star power of Hill, but there is solid and experienced group returning.
Five of the six linebackers listed on the two-deep depth chart participated in over 100 plays last season. Reserve strongside linebacker Maurice Nelson is the only one, who did not get 100 snaps last season. Nelson saw 47 snaps last season.
Anthony Waters will draw the initial comparisons to Hill after moving to middle linebacker, Hill’s vacated position. Waters is the team’s leading returning tackler (70). He started all eleven games at weakside linebacker last year. Waters showed last year he is capable of being a leader on defense. He played the second half of the Wake Forest game with a broken hand. It is the toughness and effort that Waters showcases that makes him an easy guy to follow. His backup will be former walk-on Lionel Richardson. Richardson was one of the most improved players in the spring, and he is challenging Waters for the starting spot. Richardson turned heads in the spring and will likely see150+ snaps in 2005.
At strongside linebacker, Tramaine Billie is waiting to breakout. When Eric Sampson suffered a broken jaw, Billie put a stronghold on his role as a starter. The Tigers were 5-1 after Billie took over as the starter. He posted 41 of his 62 tackles in those six games. If there is one player, who could unexpectedly have an All-ACC type year, Billie may be the guy. Nelson will play behind Billie, and he patiently waited for his turn to see the field. Now, Nelson will have his chance to see the field, but it will be difficult to get many snaps behind Billie.
One of the more intense fall battles will be at weakside linebacker. Nick Watkins and David Dunham are both proven linebackers you can count on. Dunham is an unselfish leader, who finds a way to make a play on defense or on special teams. Watkins really started emerging in the spring. He missed the spring game, but the staff was very pleased with what Watkins showed during practice. The Louisiana native may be the quickest linebacker on the team, and he showed good power bench pressing 225 pounds 21 times (10th best on the team).
There may not be one player, who breakouts with 110 tackles to replace Hill, but top to bottom this group is on solid ground. There are high hopes for incoming freshmen Antonio Clay and Josh Miller, but it will be difficult for a freshman to see significant action in this group. Clay and Miller are both very talented, but as previously stated you have five players who saw 100+ snaps in ‘04, that is experience you simply do not get in high school.
It is never easy for a group to be improved after losing a player the caliber of Hill, but linebacker may be one of the biggest surprises for Clemson in 2005.