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2008 Clemson Football Outlook

2008 Clemson Football Outlook

March 27, 2008

Clemson has 14 of 22 starters and 51 lettermen returning from the 2007 team that won nine games and finished in the top 25 of both polls. While there is a strong contingent of experience and talented players returning at many positions on offense and defense, there are also some holes to fill on both sides of the ball.

Clemson had one of the most balanced offenses in the nation in 2007, and was the only ACC team to rank among the top five teams in both rushing and passing. In fact, Clemson was second in the ACC and 24th in the nation in rushing, but also third in the conference in passing with a 242-yard average. Clemson led the ACC in scoring offense and ranked second in total offense.

But to duplicate that balance Clemson will have to replace four starters on the offensive line. Gone are All-Americans Barry Richardson, a starting offensive tackle the last four years, and Chris McDuffie, a converted defensive tackle who earned second-team All-America honors at offensive guard according to The Sporting News. Clemson must also replace reliable players Christian Capote and Brandon Pilgrim on the offensive line.

On the point prevention unit, Clemson ranked first in the ACC in pass defense, second in total defense and second in scoring defense. The Tigers finished in the top 25 in the nation in the four major defensive categories, joining Ohio State, LSU, Southern California and West Virginia as the only five schools in the nation who could make that claim. It marked just the fifth time in school history that Clemson was in the top 25 in all four major defensive categories in the same year.

But, to have similar numbers in 2008, Clemson must replace four of its top six tacklers from 2007. Nick Watkins and Tramaine Billie, a pair of three-year starters at linebacker ranked first and fourth, respectively. The linebacker position is thin as starter Cortney Vincent also will not return. The Tigers also lost Phillip Merling, the first pick of the second round in the NFL draft.

“The offensive line and linebacker positions are areas of concern and areas we will address in August preseason work,” said Clemson Head Coach Tommy Bowden, who is his 10th year at Clemson. “We have moved some players to help shore up those areas and there will be an opportunity for freshmen to gain significant playing time.”

While Clemson does have some holes to fill, it also has great depth in some areas. Clemson and Tennessee are the only schools from one of the top six conferences with a returning 1000-yard rusher and 1000-yard receiver in James Davis and Aaron Kelly, respectively. Quarterback Cullen Harper led the ACC in passing efficiency, the first Clemson quarterback to do that in 25 years.

Other outstanding returning players on offense include game breaker Tyler Grisham ranked in the top 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in receiving last year and ranks 15th in Clemson history in career receptions, and Thomas Austin, who started 12 of the 13 games at center.

On defense, Clemson returns all four starters in the secondary, a unit that allowed just 188.5 passing yards per game, best in the ACC and 13th best in the nation. Clemson was the only ACC team ranked in the top 25 in the nation in pass defense.

Michael Hamlin, a second-team All-ACC safety a year ago, is the leader of the secondary. Other returning starters are Chris Chancellor, Chris Clemons and Crezdon Butler. Hamlin and Clemons ranked in the top four in total tackles last year.

The defensive line has three returning starters led by Dorell Scott, an honorable mention All-ACC player at defensive tackle, and team leader Rashaad Jackson who has 16.5 career tackles for loss, more than any other active Tiger. Starting bandit end Ricky Sapp is the leading returning player in terms of quarterback sacks.

Clemson should be strong in the special teams area with the return of starting kicker Mark Buchholz and starting punter Jimmy Maners. Both players ranked in the top 20 in their respective areas of expertise in 2007.

Offense(7 returning starters, 23 returning lettermen)

Clemson has a chance to have one of the most balanced, and productive offensive units in the ACC. The Tigers scored a school record 430 points last year and averaged over 403 yards per game in terms of total offense. They accomplished those numbers while committing just 12 turnovers in 13 games, second in the nation in fewest turnovers per game.

Offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who has had the Tigers ranked in the top four in rushing and passing offense in the league in each of his three years with the program, has as many weapons at the “skill” positions as any Clemson team in a number of years. For the first time in school history Clemson has a returning 1000-yard rusher and 1000-yard receiver.

“We have a number of experienced players at the skill positions on offense, probably the most productive returning group I have had since I have been at Clemson,” said Bowden. “We have confidence in their abilities because they have shown their success on the field in big games. Our biggest challenge in the preseason will be to develop a line that will create areas for the backs and receivers to run and score.”

The biggest plus for Spence will be the return of quarterback Cullen Harper, the first time he has had a signal caller back for another year as the starting quarterback.

“I am really interested to see what we can do on offense with a returning starter at quarterback,” said Bowden. “Rob has done a great job with our quarterbacks the last three years, but we have had three different starting quarterbacks in those three years. Cullen is now in his fourth year in the system and his second year as a starter. He was very efficient for the entire year and broke a lot of records. He made some accurate throws in clutch situations.”

Harper established 21 Clemson records in various single game and season categories in his first year behind center as a starter. He threw for 27 touchdowns, breaking the school record by six and the same total Charlie Ward had at Florida State when he won the Heisman Trophy in 1993.

Harper got off to a great start last year when he quarterbacked Clemson to a victory over a 19th ranked Florida State team, the first Tiger quarterback to lead a team to a win over a ranked team in his first game. He set the school record for touchdown passes in a game with five against Louisiana-Monroe in the second game, then set the school passing efficiency record in week three against Furman when he was 16-19 for 266 yards and three touchdowns. For the season, Harper completed 282 of 433 passes for 2991 yards and 27 scores against just six interceptions. His 141.0 efficiency rating led the ACC and that touchdown/interception ratio was also a school standard.

Clemson will have depth at quarterback as red-shirt freshman Willy Korn returns. He played in two games early in the season before suffering an injury, but he was an efficient 8-11 for 100 yards and a score in that limited action.

James Davis and C.J. Spiller are in their third season as the “Thunder & Lightning” rushing combination, perhaps the top running back duo in the nation. They have combined for 3,957 rushing yards on 691 carries, a 5.7 average, and scored 46 touchdowns, including 40 rushing, over the last two seasons. They also have a combined 71 career receptions for 647 yards and six scores. Both are ranked in the top 10 in Clemson history in all-purpose running.

Davis, a senior from Atlanta, rushed for 1064 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, his second consecutive 1000-yard season. He has been a first-team All-ACC selection each of the last two years, the first Clemson running back to do that since Terry Allen in 1987-88. Davis enters the 2008 season with 3,130 career rushing yards, second best in school history. He needs just 837 yards to break Raymond Priester’s career record. His 38 career touchdowns and 36 rushing touchdowns are also second best in school history, respectively, behind the 50 total touchdowns and 41 rushing touchdown scored by Travis Zachery between 1998-01.

Spiller led Clemson in all-purpose running last year with 1,723 yards, 132.5 per game. He had an impact on the game in many areas as he had 768 rushing yards and a 5.3 per carry figure, and caught 34 passes for 271 yards. He is one of the top kickoff and punt return men in the nation. The sophomore from Lake Butler, FL already has the Clemson record for touchdown plays of over 50 yards in a career with 10.

Spiller finished the 2007 season on a high note when he was named the offensive MVP of the Chick-fil-A Bowl even though he played on the losing team. He had an 83-yard touchdown run in that game, the longest running play in the history of that bowl and the longest touchdown play of any kind in Clemson bowl history. H

Aaron Kelly caught a school record and near ACC record 88 passes last year for 1081 yards and a school record 11 touchdowns. His total equaled the previous ACC best, Tory Holt’s 88 catches for NC State in 1998, but Wake Forest senior Kenneth Moore had 98 receptions last year as well. Kelly’s reception figure on a per game basis ranked 19th in the nation and his 11 touchdown receptions ranked best in the ACC.

Entering the 2008 season, Kelly has 165 receptions, just three short of establishing a Clemson career record and just 52 short of the ACC mark. Many Clemson players will be approaching school records next season, but the most interesting will be the career touchdown catch mark. Kelly has 16, just two short of the 18 recorded by Glenn Smith, who played from 1949-51. That is the oldest major career record on the Clemson books.

Rendrick Taylor, a senior with 46 career receptions as a wide receiver, has moved to running back where he should be an asset, especially in short yardage.

While Davis has Spiller, Kelly has Tyler Grisham and Jacoby Ford as unique counterparts on the Clemson offense. Grisham had 60 receptions for 653 yards and four scores last year to rank seventh in the league in receptions per game. He now has 95 receptions entering his final season. He is also one of the top down field blockers Clemson has had at the receiver position in recent years.

Ford was on his way to a breakout season last year until he suffered a broken ankle in Clemson’s win at Maryland. He had 17-310 in receiving at that point, an 18.2 average, best on the team. He also had a 12.3 yards per rush average on 14 attempts and was among the league leaders in kickoff returns and punt returns. For his career Ford has touched the ball 102 times and picked up 1684 yards for a 16.5 average.

The tight end position is prominent in the Clemson offense and the Tigers return three players who have started games in the past. Michael Palmer is a junior who started 11 of the 13 games a year ago and had 13 catches for 128 yards. Freshman Brian Linthicum had 11 catches for 76 yards and caught three touchdowns, high among the Clemson tight ends. Graduate student Akeem Robinson has started 11 games and played in 38 games in his career and is a reliable blocker, as is red-shirt freshman fullback Chad Diehl.

While the offensive line will be looking for four new starters there are three players back who have started important games. The leader of the offensive line is center Thomas Austin, a 305-pound junior who started 12 of the 13 games last year. Originally an offensive guard, Austin moved to center last year and was a key ingredient for a Clemson team that gained over 2000 yards rushing and 3000 yards passing.

Austin led an offensive line that had two other All-America players in knockdown blocks with 90, including 12 in the win over South Carolina when he was named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week for the second time in 2007. In many ways he was Clemson’s most consistent offensive lineman. Mason Cloy, a red-shirt freshman, will be the backup at center, but is capable of playing different positions.

Barry Humphries is back at right guard. The junior started seven of the 13 games, five at center and two at right guard, and finished second on the team in knockdown blocks with 87. He had a team best 9.5 knockdown blocks in the season opening win against Florida State. He is the strongest player on the Clemson team in terms of the bench press. Bobby Hutchinson, who was a factor off the bench in Clemson’s win over Florida State, is also back at a guard position.

Joining Humphries at a stating guard could be Jamarcus Grant. The 305-pound junior has seen limited action over the last two years. He played 18 plays against Central Michigan and graded 75 percent for his best game of 2007. Freshman David Smith of nearby Greenville High in Greenville, SC, will also challenge Grant at left guard.

Chris Hairston and Cory Lambert are slated as starters at offensive tackle positions. Hairston got a start in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn and graded out well while playing 75 snaps against a defensive line that featured many NFL prospects. Lambert has played in 26 consecutive games over the last two years with one start.

Jock McKissic and Landon Walker are certainly in the mix at the tackle positions. McKissic, who has played 37 consecutive games as a defensive tackle, moved to offensive tackle in the spring and will get a strong look at moving into the lineup. Walker red-shirted last season as a freshman. His father was a member of Clemson’s 1981 National Championship team.

Defense(7 returning starters, 26 returning lettermen)

By comparison, Clemson does not have as many high profile players on its defense, but the Tigers do return eight starters and 26 lettermen. Defensive Coordinator Nick Watkins (118 stops) and fourth leading tackler Tramaine Billie (79 tackles) who were both starters for most of the last four years.

Also departed is defensive end Phillip Merling, one of the top 10 sack players in the ACC last year as a junior. He decided to turn professional and is listed as a possible first round draft choice in April. He had 51 tackles in 2007, including a team best 17 tackles for loss.

“The key to any run for a championship is your defense,” said Bowden. “We have a veteran secondary back and they did an outstanding job last year. We also have solid players returning up front. The key for us on defense will be the development of some young linebackers. We look for some young players to step up in preseason practice.”

The strength of the defense may be in the secondary where all four starters and nine total lettermen return. Michael Hamlin is the leader of that unit and perhaps the entire defense. The May, 2008 graduate from Lamar High School in Timmonsville, SC had 97 tackles last season to rank second on the team. He has a nose for the football as evidenced by his 12 career takeaways, most among active players and tied for eighth in school history.

Hamlin will be in his fourth season as a starter at safety and is a strong contender for the Jim Thorpe Award. He has been a common denominator on three Clemson defenses that have ranked in the top 25 in the nation in the four major statistical categories. He finished the 2007 season strong with 14 tackles in just 54 plays in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn.

Chris Clemons will join Hamlin as a starting safety for the third straight year. The senior from Arcadia, FL ranked third on the team in tackles last year with 94, including a team best tying 15 tackles against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Clemson’s returning starters at cornerback are Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler, who combined for 113 tackles, seven interceptions and 16 passes defensed last year. The two rising juniors give Clemson experienced, physical corners for two more seasons. Clemson was one of the few teams nationally to rank in the top 15 in the nation in both pass efficiency defense and pass defense (yardage) in 2007 and the Butler-Chancellor combination had a lot to do with it.

Clemson has an experienced group of second-team young players, all of whom lettered last year and they will continue to see plenty of playing time. DeAndre McDaniel was a first-team All-ACC Freshman selection last year when he played behind Hamlin. An outstanding tackler, he had six passes broken up to rank in a tie for second on the team. Marcus Gilchrist, a cornerback who is also a contributor in the return game, had 17 tackles while playing in all 13 games as a reserve. Byron Maxwell had a solid red-shirt freshman year and is also a strong tackler. The native of Charleston, SC had 27 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage while playing 25 snaps per game.

Sadat Chambers is the backup free safety behind Clemons. Chambers has already earned a letter as a defensive and running back in his Clemson career. He was a reserve defensive back in 2006, then moved to running back in 2007 and had 161 yards to rank fourth on the team.

Clemson also has experience on the front line where three of the four starters return. Defensive tackles Dorell Scott are red-shirt seniors who have been a part of some outstanding defenses.

Scott had 50 tackles while starting all 13 games last year, including five tackles for loss and three sacks. He had a big stop against South Carolina on the Gamecocks final third down play last year that gave Clemson possession for the winning drive. Jackson battled injuries at times, but still played in 12 games and started 10 and accumulated 37 tackles.

The most active defensive lineman may be bandit end Ricky Sapp. The junior had 10 tackles for loss, five sacks and 22 quarterback pressures as a sophomore when he started all 13 games. Kevin Alexander is on tap to replace Merling at the defensive end position. He does not have Merling’s size, but has great quickness. He showed that on special teams last year when he had 14 tackles among his 32 stops. Freshman Da’Quan Bowers will also be a factor at the position. He was the number-one ranked high school player in the nation in 2007 and enrolled at Clemson in January. He was the leading tackler in the Spring Game with seven.

Clemson has talented second-team defensive linemen, led by former Parade All-American Jamie Cumbie, who improves each season. Cumbie will play defensive tackle this season behind Jackson. He had 29 tackles, including two sacks last season in 13 games, including three starting roles.

Kourtnei Brown is a returning letterman at bandit end that has the speed and quickness to continue Clemson’s tradition at that position. He played in 11 games last year and had two sacks as a reserve.

The linebacker position has the least amount of experience on the defense. The spring depth chart has Kavell Conner at weakside linebacker and the junior had a strong finish to the 2007 season when he had a career high 15 tackles in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. He had 46 stops for the year, tops among linebackers on the spring depth chart.

Scotty Cooper is a talented sophomore who also started the Chick-fil-A Bowl at strongside linebacker. He had 33 stops for the season in 183 plays on defense, including 10 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Josh Miller is the only senior among the group and will challenge for a starting position in the middle. Brandon Maye had the top spring among the newcomers and is listed as first team in the middle entering the fall. Jeremy Campbell and freshman Stanley Hunter are also ready to contribute at the linebacker position in 2008.

Special Teams

Clemson returns two productive kickers in punter Mark Buchholz. Both ranked in the top 20 in the nation at their respective areas of expertise.

Maners had a 42.8 yard average to rank 20th in the nation. That figure was the eighth best in Clemson history and best since Chris Gardocki set the school record in 1990. Maners had a streak of eight consecutive games with a punting average of at least 40 yards and finished the season with16 punts inside the 20 and 13 of at least 50.

Mark Buchholz did double duty last year as a soccer and football player. He earned Academic All-ACC honors for both sports, a first in Clemson history. This fall, his final year of eligibility, he will play just football, which should help his overall performance on the gridiron. He ranked 12th in the nation in field goals per game when he had 22, just two short of the school record, and he made 48 consecutive extra points, the best perfect season in school history. His game winning 35-yard field on the last play of the South Carolina game was a season highlight.

Clemson is strong in the return game with juniors C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford. Spiller ranked 14th in the nation in kickoff returns last year when he became the first player in Clemson history to return a kickoff for a touchdown in consecutive games. He averaged 28.8 on kickoff returns for the season. Ford was injured the last half of last season, but had a kickoff return for a score and a punt return for a score in 2006. Both returns were for at least 90 yards, also a first in school history.

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