Aug. 11, 1999
At first glance, it would appear that Clemson’s adaptation to the Tommy Bowden offense from previous administrations would be akin to Russia’s governmental movement from Communism to Capitalism. Hopefully Clemson won’t have as many growing pains.
The Tigers have generally been a methodical offense for the last 20 seasons, with a strong rushing attack serving as the staple of the plan. Clemson has led the ACC in rushing 10 of the last 21 years and rushed for at least 200 yards per game in 15 of the last 21 seasons.
It is true that Bowden’s Tulane team averaged 305 yards passing and threw for 38 touchdowns in its magical season of 1998. But, the Green Wave also rushed for 2226 yards and scored 26 touchdowns rushing.
“If we can rush for 2,000 yards next year we will have a productive year in terms of wins and losses,” said Bowden when discussing his offense. “Rushing the football is a very big part of this offense. We had over 2000 yards rushing at Tulane the last two years and could have had a 1000-yard rusher if we did not split the work for our running backs. We would like to have a 1000-yard rusher at Clemson this season and have 2000 yards rushing as a team. If we can’t run the football we are going to struggle on offense.”
While rushing is an important aspect of the offense, the throwing game and the corresponding multiple wide-receiver formations will be revolutionary for Clemson enthusiasts. “We have nine scholarship receivers on offense right now, I would like to travel 10 and we will make that up in recruiting next year. We will have formations that use three, four and five receivers.”
Tulane’s offense was the only attack in the nation to average at least 300 yards passing and at least 200 yards rushing in 1998. “I would characterize our offense as a multiple formation, up-tempo attack. We will use a lot of no-huddle and shotgun that puts stress on the defense. We want the defense to defend the entire 53 yards of the field horizontally, then make them defend all 100 yards vertically.”
This up-tempo attack means Clemson will not feature offensive linemen who bank on brute strength. “I like big, tall, quick offensive lineman. We had that at Tulane the last couple of years, we had quick offensive linemen. Our schemes involve a lot of movement in the offensive line. We must have athletic offensive linemen. Some teams just pull the guards, we have a lot of movement with the tackles. All five interior linemen must be quick and have stamina because of the no-huddle aspect.”
He has already worked to physically mold his offensive linemen to the uptempo style. The 10 returning scholarship offensive linemen on his 1999 roster have collectively lost 104 pounds relative to their fall of 1998 playing weights. The starting interior five linemen who were first team players last spring average 266 pounds, while the starting five in 1998 averaged an even 300 pounds.
The question is, does Clemson have the players to fit the system? But, Bowden is quick to point out there are adaptations to his system. “There are many elements to the offense. We have I-formation and means of moving the football that we can adapt to the talents of our current players.
“I haven’t watched a lot of film from last year and don’t plan to. When I look at the film I don’t know what they were coached to do. Everyone will have a fresh start. I am not going into this year with a preconceived notion.”
A look to the film from last year will show that adapting to the Tommy Bowden offensive system might not be as drastic as first expected. Over the last four games of the 1998 season, Clemson used a shotgun, multiple wide receiver attack with success. Clemson averaged 27.8 points, 222 yards passing and 20 first down per game over the last four contests.
Brandon Streeter is the returning starter at quarterback. The native of Pennsylvania showed improvement over the course of the season and concluded with the second best passing season in school history. The son of the head coach of Gettysburg College threw for 1948 yards and connected on 150 passes in 1998, the second highest single season figures in Clemson history in both areas. His 13 touchdown passes tied for third best in Clemson history. He was especially effective over the last four games when he completed 74-133 passes for 887 yards and nine touchdowns.
Streeter set a Clemson single game passing record against NC State when he completed 27-38 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns, leading Clemson to 39 points against a team that held Florida State to just seven points earlier in the season. He ranks 14th in Clemson history in career passing yards, matching the number on his back.
There is competition for the starting quarterback position. Woodrow Dantzler, an athletic sophomore from Orangeburg, SC, made strides in the spring. He concluded the 15-practice session by throwing for 220 yards in the spring game, a Clemson record for the off-season event. He completed 8-17 passes for 82 yards in 1998 in five games, and also rushed for 84 yards in 34 attempts. Dantzler and Streeter were the only two quarterbacks to throw a pass for the Tigers last year.
“Brandon had a consistent spring and made strides as far as learning this offense. Woody made improvement, he closed the gap to where it is a dead heat going into August. Which ever one stays healthy will probably be the starter. If they both stay healthy I would play both of them. I have been at places where we played two quarterbacks. I was with a team at Florida State in 1979 when we played two quarterbacks and we were almost undefeated.”
Matt Schell red-shirted last season as a first-year freshman and also had a fine spring game, hitting 5-9 passes for 106 yards and a score. First-year freshman Willie Simmons will also be in the picture. The highly regarded signal caller from just 20 minutes away from the Florida State campus, threw for 2,505 yards and 32 touchdowns and also rushed for 510 yards and eight scores his senior season.
The top four running backs from last year should return in 1999. Travis Zachery was Clemson’s leading rusher in 1998 with 635 yards and four touchdowns in 158 carries. He was seventh in the ACC in rushing and also led the Tigers in all-purpose running with 995 yards, a record for a Tiger freshman. He showed an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield with 15 receptions for 144 yards and a score. Zachery was suspended for the spring practice due to “in house discipline” from Bowden, but he should return in the fall.
Although not a starter in 1998, Javis Austin was a consistent all-around performer last year. He ranked second on the club in rushing with 72-279 yards and three scores, and also finished third in receiving with 24-159. His 24 receptions established a school mark for catches in a season by a running back. He is also a capable return man.
Austin, a native of Clemson, had his top game in the season finale, a 28-19 victory over South Carolina. He had 9-50 rushing and 3-32 receiving. He scored a touchdown in each area.
Senior Terry Witherspoon is the returning starter at fullback. The 252-pound blocker had 56-157 rushing and scored three touchdowns. Vince Ciurciu had 27-99 rushing for the season as a first-year freshman and certainly will be a factor in the Clemson offense. Gary Johnson and Pat Cyrgalis, who both red-shirted this past year, are also back to compete for playing time in the backfield. Johnson will see most of his time at tailback, while Cyrgalis is a fullback.
“I was very satisfied with the play of the four fullbacks (in the Spring). They showed a tremendous work ethic and a mental toughness and you need that in the backfield. We need to find a place for Pat Cyrgalis and Vince Ciurciu. We need someone with breakaway speed at tailback. We could easily see a freshman in the backfield this fall. We need to find someone who will make the defense miss in the open field.”
Tommy Bowden uses many wide receivers in his offensive attack and fortunately he does inherit a deep group of players at that key position in 1999. Three players, including a pair of experienced seniors, return who had at least 20 receptions in 1998. Overall, six returning lettermen who combined to catch 92 passes last year are back, including senior leaders Brian Wofford and Mal Lawyer.
Wofford and Lawyer combined for 66 receptions for 999 yards and eight touchdowns in 1998. In the NC State game, both receivers went over 100 yards, the first time in school history that the Tigers have had two 100-yard receivers in the same game. They have combined for 138 receptions in their careers and both are ranked in the top 20 in Clemson history in career receptions. They have a shot at breaking the school record for receptions by a pair in the same class.
Wofford, a senior who will be in his third year as a starter, had 35-535 yards and five scores in 1998. He had a solid spring and had a 100-yard performance in the spring game. The native of Spartanburg, SC actually had consecutive 100-yard receiving games against Duke and NC State last year, and had at least one catch in 10 of the 11 games. He ranks 11th in school history in receptions and 13th in receiving yardage entering 1999.
Lawyer was the second leading pass catcher last year with 31-464 and three scores. He is also a fine return man as shown by his seventh place ranking in the ACC in kickoff returns. He had 8 catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns against NC State and had 181 all-purpose yards against the Pack. Like his close friend Wofford, he had at least one catch in 10 of the 11 games last year.
Rod Gardner is a third returning receiver with at least 20 catches from a year ago. He started in three games last year and made many acrobatic catches, including two against South Carolina in the season finale. He showed his ability to go deep when he caught a 63-yard pass on the first drive of the Wake Forest game.
“I was pleased with the depth of our wide receivers and the way they adjusted to the system. It is a fairly complicated area of our offense, they had a lot to learn. With four or five receivers on the field at the same time it was a learning experience for them. Rick Stockstill really did a good job with them in the spring.
“Overall, they caught the ball well. We need to make the receivers tougher. I want to see improvement in the blocking aspect of the game and in breaking some tackles. Rod Gardner showed great improvement. He has what it takes to play in the NFL because of his height and speed.”
Justin Watts, Matt Bailey and Mike Seth are three more returning lettermen at wideout. Watts had 4-44 last year and might have the best hands on the team. Bailey had one catch in eight games in limited action as a freshman, while Seth played in every game last year and had one reception. Jackie Robinson, who red-shirted the 1998 season, is another wide receiver who will be a factor this year. The high school teammate of quarterback Woodrow Dantzler might have been the top signee of the freshman class of ’98.
T.J. Watkins is the only returning tight end with experience. As a freshman he had three catches for 64 yards. He started four games and averaged 40 plays per game as a rookie. Watkins showed improved blocking abilities as the season progressed. Jason LeMay, who red-shirted last year, is also a factor at that position.
The offensive line will be a focal point for Bowden during fall practice. As stated previously, this is the first time in 56 years that Clemson enters a season without a returning starter on the interior. Additionally, there are only four returning lettermen on the offensive line positions.
The only player on the Clemson roster who has started a game on the offensive line is Kyle Young. Named Mr. Football in South Carolina his senior year at Daniel High School, Young had an outstanding freshman season. He started the last four games at a guard position, but will move to center, his position in high school, in 1999. The President’s List student played at his best in the victory over South Carolina, in particular on a goal line devastation block that allowed Javis Austin to score a touchdown.
Akil Smith, a reserve who averaged 40 snaps a game at tackle over the last five games of the season, should inherit a starting role at a tackle position. He is an outstanding pass blocker with quick feet who has star qualities. John McDermott, who played 56 snaps in six games a year ago, had an outstanding spring and is slated to start at a tackle position this fall opposite Smith. Brady Washburn, whose father is a line coach in the NFL, will certainly see plenty of action behind McDermott. Nate Gillespie is a red-shirt freshman who worked on defense most of last year. He was moved to the offensive side of the ball last spring and showed some promise.
Theo Mougros and Will Merritt were second team players heading into the spring, but showed consistency that moved them into the starting lineup after the spring game. Mougros played two years as a backup defensive lineman and sometime fullback in the “jumbo set”, earning letters both years, while Merritt was a backup center last year, but did not earn a letter.
“The offensive line will be inexperienced and small. We don’t have a single senior on the offensive line. We will have to take advantage of their quickness until they gain in strength. There were some pleasant surprises in the spring. Theo Mougros made strides and I thought John McDermott showed great improvement. Kyle Young was the most consistent offensive lineman and would be considered our top player in that area of the team even though he is just a sophomore. I thought Will Merritt had a nice spring also. Akil Smith and Gary Byrd are two big players who have to be more consistent.
“We hope to have players who are between 280 and 290 who have quickness, that is what we are striving for. Right now we average 266. Our system will have to give the offensive linemen a chance to be successful.”
Neely Page and Gary Byrd are two more promising offensive guards. Byrd red-shirted the 1998 season and will be a freshman this year, while Page earned a letter as a reserve guard in 1998. Byrd has lost 28 pounds since the start of last fall and is now a quicker 292 heading into 1999.
Overall, this is one of the youngest offensive lines in Clemson history. The starting five interior linemen are composed of three sophomores and two juniors, while the backups are three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. The tight end position is also devoid of an upper classman.
March 14, 2019