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2001 Clemson Football Outlook

2001 Clemson Football Outlook

March 1, 2001

Clemson Football Outlook

Clemson Head Coach Tommy Bowden has taken the Tiger program to a three-win improvement each of the last two years, something only two other Clemson coaches in history can claim. The 2000 Tigers won nine regular season games, Clemson’s highest total since 1991, and the number-15 final ranking (USA Today Coach’s) was the highest since 1990. Clemson was ranked as high as number-three in the nation after an 8-0 start, its highest ranking at any time since 1984.

Bringing a team to an unprecedented third straight three-win improvement would be a significant accomplishment. To do that, Clemson would have to win all 12 of its games, something Clemson has done just once previously. The 2001 season will be the 20-year anniversary of that National Championship season.

A look to the number of returning starters on defense reveals that equalling last year’s accomplishments will be a challenge. Clemson has just four returning starters on defense, including just one in the defensive line and one in the secondary.

Clemson’s point prevention unit must replace first-team All-American Robert Carswell, a four-year starter who was the only ACC player on the list of Thorpe semifinalists in 2000. Upfront, first-team All-ACC defensive tackle Terry Jolly, three-year starter Terry Bryant, and two-year starter Jason Holloman, have also graduated.

“We have lost a lot of top personnel on defense,” said Bowden. “This will be a challenge for our staff in its preparation for this year. That is especially true on the defensive line where we must replace three starters and two more four-year backups, plus our top returning player (Nick Eason) is out until August with a torn achilles tendon. We have only four starters back and must replace a first-team All-American in Keith Adams. He set an example for our other players in terms of work ethic and intensity. We also must replace three starters in the secondary.

“In general, we are striving to put 11 players on the field who want to hit somebody. We want to be an aggressive defense. That was the case last year with the exception of 2 1/2 games. We certainly will work on not giving up big plays. That was our downfall in the games we lost last year.”

Clemson does return 54 lettermen and 11 starters overall. Twenty-nine of the lettermen are on the offensive side of the ball, while 22 are on defense. Three would be considered special teams players.

Butkus Award candidate Chad Carson, who led the Tigers in tackles last year with 156, yes more than Adams (148) accumulated is back to lead the defense. He is a first-team Academic All-America who has outstanding leadership qualities. That was shown at the conclusion of last year when the coaches named him the permanent captain for the 2000 defense.

Clemson will employ a new defensive alignment under defensive coordinator Reggie Herring’s intense eye. The Tigers will play a defense that features four down linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and three safeties. The third safety will be known as the “Star Safety”, position that is listed as $ on the depth chart. It is a combination safety and linebacker position.

Fitting the job description for that innovative position is Nick Eason, Clemson’s sack leader last year who was named MVP of the Tiger defense by the coaching staff.

The offense has much more experience in the ranks, but still must replace wide receiver Rod Gardner, a player who reached All-America status last year in the eyes of the media, and legendary status with Clemson fans for his big play accomplishments. All Clemson supporters will remember his 50-yard reception among three South Carolina receivers with just 16 seconds remaining, a catch that led to Clemson’s thrilling 16-13 win over the archrival. Gardner left Clemson as the school’s career leader in total catches and was second in reception yards.

The offense line also must replace reliable guard Theo Mougros, a second-team All-ACC performer according to the Sporting News last year, and John McDermott, a tackle who started eight contests last season. Wide receiver Justin Watts, the first five-year letterman at Clemson since the 1920s, is now a graduate student on the Clemson coaching staff.

“Our main goal on offense is to improve our production against the better defenses that we face. Last year, we were among the top 10 in the nation in rushing and total offense, and ranked 14th in scoring. We set a lot of records on offense, so it is difficult to complain about an offense in its second year that averaged 35 points and 436 yards per game. But we were not productive at the end of the season against good defenses. We are striving to have those numbers against ranked defenses this year.

“We will look at what we did last year on offense and make a few changes. We certainly want to work the tight end into a more prominent role. We will have some talented young players at that position this fall. It has been an area that Brad Scott has used successfully in the past. With Mike O’ Cain’s experience with the option game, we will also work on that aspect of the attack. We want to be a diversified and balanced offense.”

That has been the case with Bowden offenses. Last year Clemson was one of just six Division I schools to average at least 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. In his four years as a Division I Coach, Tommy Bowden is the only coach in the nation to have an offense that has gained of at least 190 yards rushing, 240 yards passing and at least 430 yards of total offense on a per game basis. That offense has led to points, as his teams have averaged 35 points per game for those 46 games.

Another season of averaging at least 200 rushing and 200 passing could be in the offing in 2001. Clemson returns seven starters from an attack that set modern school records for total offense (436.8) and scoring offense (34.7). Clemson scored at least 28 points in nine games last year and featured two 1000-yard rushers and a 1000-yard receiver. In addition to the seven starters, Akil Smith, a starter in 1999 at offensive tackle, and Gary Byrd, a starter for the last three games of 2000, are returning.

Clemson has three legitimate candidates for national position awards on its offense this year. Leading the way is Heisman Trophy candidate Woodrow Dantzler. The senior rushed for 1028 yards and passed for 1871 in addition to accounting for 24 touchdowns rushing and passing in 2000. No college football player has ever gained 2000 yards passing and 1000 yards rushing in a regular season, but Dantzler will challenge that mark if he stays healthy.

Travis Zachery is a top contender for the Doak Walker Award, the honor given at season’s end to the top running back in the nation. Zachery had 1027 yards last year (that is right just one yard less than Dantzler) and scored a school record 18 touchdowns. Leading the way for Dantzler and Zachery upfront is All-America center Kyle Young, a strong candidate for the Outland Trophy and the new Dave Rimington Award, the honor presented to the top center in the nation. Second-team All-ACC guard Will Merritt also returns to key the offensive line.

Offense(7 returning starters, 29 returning lettermen)

While Clemson must replace Rod Gardner, its prime big play performer of the last two years, Bowden does have some experienced marquee performers returning. Players who accounted for 99.46 percent of the total offense, 98.96 percent of the rushing yards and 100 percent of the passing yards will be back in 2001.

“Overall, we feel good about the players we have returning on offense,” said Bowden. “We have the most depth in the backfield and on the offensive line that we have had since I have been at Clemson. In 1999 we had an offensive line without any returning starters, a first at Clemson since the 1940s. This year we have 13 lettermen returning in the line and five of them have been startters at some point in their careers.”

Clemson’s offense established 34 team and individual offensive records last year, including most points scored, most touchdowns and total offense on a total and per game basis. Clemson gained 5242 yards last year, just the second 5000-yard season in Clemson history. The Tigers averaged 224 yards rushing and 212.8 yards passing per game last year, the first team in Clemson history to average at least 200 of each in the same season.

The leader of the Clemson offense is Woodrow Dantzler, a candidate for the Heisman Trophy at midseason of 2000 and in the preseason of 2001. An injury to his left lower leg at North Carolina in the season’s eighth game limited his effectiveness for a three-game period (games 8 through 10) and took him out of the running.

The native of Orangeburg, SC had been averaging close to 300 yards a game of total offense prior to the injury, then failed to reach 100 yards in that category in three consecutive games when he was trying to play with the injury. Dantzler rquired surgery after the bowl game, but he should be 100 percent by the time the Tigers open the season against Central Florida on September 1. Even with the injury problems he gained over 260 yards of total offense against both South Carolina and Virginia Tech to end the season with 2899 yards of total offense, an all-time Clemson record.

Dantzler set 16 school records last season, including most yards rushing by a quarterback (1028) and most touchdowns rushing and passing in a season (24). He ranked 47th in the nation in rushing and 21st in passing efficiency. At midseason and in 100 percent health, Dantzler had four consecutive games of at least 100 yards rushing and 300 yards of total offense, believed to be the first quarterback in college football history to do that. His breakout game came at Virginia when he rushed for 220 and passed for 154 in a 31-10 Clemson win.

Dantzler the rusher gained 1028 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Dantzler the passer completed 137 of 244 passes for 1871 yards and 11 scores. He enters his senior year ranked seventh in Clemson history in passing yardage, 20th in rushing yardage and fourth in total offense. His 129.3 passing efficiency is third best in school history, but the top figure among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 160 passes.

When Dantzler can’t go, the Tigers have an effective backup in Willie Simmons, a red-shirt freshman from Quincy, FL. Simmons played in nine games as a red-shirt freshman, all in reserve, and completed 42-92 passes for 679 yards and eight touchdowns. He threw just three interceptions and averaged 16.2 yards per completion. His passing efficiency was actually higher than Dantzler’s (129.8 to 129.7). He came off the bench for an injured Dantzler to throw four touchdown passes at North Carolina, tying a school single game record.

“We have outstanding depth at quarterback with Woodrow Dantzler and Willie Simmons returning. They have faced live bullets and it is good to have two players who gone up against top line defenses in important games. They were both productive last year and we hope another year of experience will help them take another step forward. We will work on the drop back passing aspect of the game this spring. Woodrow will miss at least the first half of the spring, which means Willie will get more reps, and we plan to spend much of that time in the dropback passing game.

Clemson has its top six rushers back for the 2001 season. Of course, that includes the aforementioned Dantzler, who carried the ball 190 times last year, including 41 rushes for 10 yards or more. But, when he hands the ball off he has confidence Travis Zachery will bring the Tigers closer to another first down. The Tigers ranked 10th in the nation in rushing last season and Zachery, a first-team All-ACC running back had a lot to do with that. He finished second to Dantzler on the rushing charts by just a yard. He had just 15 yards on the ground in the Gator Bowl because he suffered a fractured ankle in the first quarter, an injury that will probably force him to miss spring practice. He was just the ninth 1000-yard rusher in Clemson history.

Zachery did not built his stats with one or two big games. The junior, who was a mid-season addition to the Doak Walker Award list, had just three games of at least 100 yards, but was never held below 67 yards the entire regular season. He has been a touchdown machine, already setting the Clemson career record with 39 (33 rushing and six receiving). He has 33 touchdowns over his last 22 regular season game. He had 18 touchdowns last year (13 rushing and five receiving) to break Lester Brown’s 22-year-old Clemson season record.

Zachery is almost as effective a receiver as he is a rusher. He ranked second on the team in receptions (29), reception yards (313) and reception touchdowns (5). He is Clemson’s career leader in receptions by a running back (60). Also capable as a kick returner, his 1370 all-purpose yards led the Clemson team. His 2482 career rushing yards rank fifth in Clemson history, and he is already second in career all-purpose running heading into the 2001 season.

Dantzler and Zachery combined for 2055 of Clemson’s 2688 yards rushing last season. Keith Kelly was third on the 2000 team in rushing with 243 yards, but he played in just six games. Bernard Rambert had 222 yards and four touchdowns as Zachery’s primary backup. Chad Jasmin is another returning letterman who will challenge for playing time in the backfield.

“I feel good about the running back position,” said Bowden. “Travis Zachery has answered every challenge the last two years. He showed improvement last year, is a tough runner and is an outstanding receiver. “But he will be challenged again this year. It is good to have competition at every position and we have that on offense. We will take a strong look at Keith Kelly. I want to make sure we don’t have a 1300-yard runner sitting on the bench. I look for Keith to make significant improvement now that he has a full year under his belt. Our offense is a lot to grasp for a first-year freshman.”

At wide receiver, Clemson must replace Gardner, who had 58 catches for 1050 yards and seven scores last year. He is the only 1000-yard receiver in Clemson history, and he did that twice. Bowden has five returning letter winners at the wide receiver position, including three players who started at least five games last year.

Junior receiver Jackie Robinson, a high school teammate of quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, had 26 catches for 301 yards and three touchdowns last year, third on the Clemson team in all areas. He had 4-76 and a touchdown in the win at North Carolina.

Kevin Youngblood started five games at wide receiver and the 6-5 freshman looks to be one of Clemson’s big play receivers next year. A native of Jacksonville and from the same high school as Gardner, Youngblood caught a pair of touchdown passes last year and averaged 17.3 yards per catch. He was also the top gunner on Clemson’s punt return defense a year ago.

Matt Bailey had nine catches for 121 yards in five starts in 2000, but did not play in the bowl game after having surgery in December to correct a tendon problem on his left hand. Joe Don Reames is another reserve wide receiver who figures to see action as a junior. He had four receptions for the season and is one of the top returning punt return players in the country. Ronnie Thomas, who caught one pass as a first-year freshman, is a fifth returning letterman. Red-shirt Derrick Hamilton should also be a factor at wide receiver in 2001.

Tight end Morgan Woodward had four catches for 89 yards and two scores in 2000. He is the returning player with the most experience at tight end. However, Todd McClinton, listed as the top tight end in the nation in the prep ranks two years ago, will join the squad for the 2001 season. He is a 6-6, 270-pounder who has terrific hands and can run in the open field. Clemson also has recruited some top notch freshmen for next year at that position.

“We must have some receivers step up and make plays,” said Bowden. “This is an offense that must have big plays from the receiver position. Over the last two years Rod Gardner made most or our big plays. He is a big loss, but we can’t go backwards. The returning players we have at wide receiver will get plenty of opportunities to make plays in the spring. But, in the fall, if it appears a freshman can do the job, I would not hesitate to put a rookie on the field.” Clemson signed three of the top five receivers in the nation according to SuperPrep Magazine.

Clemson ranked 10th in rushing offense and 23rd in passing efficiency offense in 2000 and the play of the offensive line had as much to do with that productivity as anything. The Tigers featured a relatively small offensive line, as the five starters averaged 271.6 pounds per man last year. The Tigers figure to be bigger and stronger in 2001, but speed is of the utmost importance in Bowden’s no huddle attack.

The Clemson line is an intelligent group. Leading the list of returnees are led by Kyle Young, a first-team Academic All-American each of the last two years, and graduate student Will Merritt, a second-team All-ACC performer on the field and first-team Academic All-ACC choice.

Young, a second-team All-American on the field will have a chance to become just the second ACC player in history to be chosen first-team Academic All-American three times in a career. He also could become just the second offensive lineman in college football history to do it. A two-time ACC Player of the Week selection, he was named second-team All-American by Football News and was a third-team choice by Sporting News. The Tiger center who has started 28 straight games set a record for knockdown blocks by a Clemson center with 120 and he was the line’s highest graded blocker in nine of the 12 games.

Merritt was the starting offensive guard for the Tigers in 10 of the 12 games and was second on the club in knockdown blocks with 80, including a career high 21 in the win over NC State, his best game of the season. Merritt was one of 40 midseason selections as an Outland Trophy candidate. He earned his degree in December of 2000 and will be a graduate student his final three semesters.

Akil Smith would be out for the year due to a blood clot in his lung. Watkins could return to guard this year. Smith should return to his starting tackle position in 2001. A starter in 11 games in 1999, has the athletic ability to be an All-ACC player.

Gary Byrd is not listed as a returning starter, but he did start the last three games of last year and had four starts for the year. He is a 290-pound junior who has shown improvement over his career. Bowden is looking for a 300-pounder who can run to fill his offensive line slots. Greg Walker could fill that bill at guard this year. The 6-5, 315-pounder showed promise during his red-shirt freshman season.

Derrick Brantley is a junior college transfer who red-shirted last year. He was an All-American at the JC level two years ago. Jermyn Chester is an intelligent sophomore who figures to see time at guard, along with classmate Nick Black, who played sparingly last year. Brian Outlaw will be the backup to Young at center.

“It is hard to complain about an offensive line that had a top 10 season in rushing yardage,” said Bowden. “But, in the games that we lost, an inability to run the ball had a lot to do with it. We need to run the ball against teams that have strong defenses if we are going to go to the next level. We are getting bigger and stronger, but we are still looking for the 300-pounder who can run. We need to be more physical in the offensive line against ranked opponents, that is one of our goals on offense this year.”

Defense(4 returning starters, 22 returning lettermen)

There are many holes to fill on the Clemson defense, as just four starters return for 2001.

Clemson’s defense ranked 18th in the nation against the run and had the 23rd best scoring defense in the nation in 2001. Clemson’s pass defense was also ranked among the top 15 in the nation heading into the Georgia Tech game, but the Yellow Jackets and Florida State Seminoles had consecutive record setting passing days that knocked Clemson from the national rankings.

While Clemson ranked sixth in the ACC in passing yards per game allowed, the Tigers were second in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Clemson allowed just a 49.6 completion percentage and just nine touchdowns through the air. Clemson was second in the ACC in scoring defense and third in total defense last season.

Clemson returns just three of its top seven tacklers, just four of its top eight players in terms of tackles for loss. When it comes to the all-important takeaway department Clemson must replace players who accounted for 17 of the 26 takeaways a year ago.

“We have some solid defensive players returning with experience,” said Bowden. “Chad Carson was our leading tackler and had a strong year as a junior. He, along with Charles Hafley (SS) was our top defensive back last year, but he is our only returning starter in the secondary.

“There are a lot of returning lettermen who have not seen much time on scrimmage plays who will have to step up. Players like Kevin Johnson and Marcus Houskin in the secondary, Jovon Bush and Bryant McNeal on the front line, and Rodney Thomas, Rodney Feaster and Altroy Bodrick at linebacker will all have the opportunity to become frontline players who will have a direct impact on our level of success. We have some returning red-shirts in Donnell Washington (DT), Rony Delusme (FS) and Ryan Hemby (CB) who will also get a strong look in the spring and will challenge for starting roles.

Carson, like Young a first-team Academic All-American with a 3.9 career grade point average, had a team best 156 tackles a year ago, as he averaged a tackle every 4.7 snaps, best on the team. He added 10 tackles for loss and had double figures in tackles in 10 of the 12 games, including a career best 22 tackles in 87 plays against Georgia Tech, his father’s alma mater. The 2001 Butkus Award candidate was fourth in the nation in tackles per game with a 13.0 figure.

Braxton K. Williams has been a starting outside linebacker each of the last two years. He will be first on the depth chart again this year, but his position will be named “Star” linebacker. Williams had 70 tackles to rank fifth on the team in 2000, and he added six tackles for loss, including four sacks. He had a season high nine stops in the win over South Carolina. He will be active in 2001 stopping the run, rushing the quarterback and defending the pass.

Rodney Thomas and Altroy Bodrick are two second-team linebackers from last year who figure to see considerable action this year, even as starters. Thomas had 51 tackles for the season to rank eighth on the team. He had 25 on scrimmage plays and 26 on special teams. The special teams total was a single season record. Bodrick, who started one game and averaged 22 plays a contest, had 43 tackles and tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries with two. J.J. Howard is another athletic defender who figures to see time at linebacker, or the $ position behind Williams.

Clemson’s defensive front is in experienced. Clemson Defensive Coordinator Reggie Herring has always used a two-platoon system on the defensive line throughout his career, but the same policy will mean a lot of young players will see considerable action.

The future star of the defensive line is Nick Eason, an All-ACC candidate for 2001. The native of Lyons, GA led the Clemson team in sacks last year with seven and had 11 tackles for loss, second best on the team. He was named Clemson’s MVP on defense last year by the Clemson coaches, quite a statement considering it was a unit that had two All-Americans and two others who were first-team All-ACC. Eason, who is slated to graduate in August with two more years of eligibility remaining, had nine tackles, including two for minus yardage against Georgia Tech, then added seven stops against South Carolina. He suffered a torn achilles tendon injury while preparing for the Gator Bowl and that injury will force him to miss spring practice. He should be ready in the fall.

Jovon Bush is a strong and athletic defensive tackle who had 20 tackles last year, including four in the Gator Bowl. An ever improving sophomore defensive end is Khaleed Vaughan, who averaged 35 plays of action over the last four games of the season. He started and played 50 snaps against Virginia Tech and finished the year with 20 tackles and three sacks.

Donnell Washington was an All-American out of high school who has the size and quickness to step into a starting role at tackle if he has a strong spring.

Paul White, DeJuan Polk and David Ellis are three returning lettermen who will have a newfound opportunity in the defensive line. White and Polk both played in five games as reserves and had eight tackles. Ellis has been a strong special teams player the last year years, but is yet to see any action on scrimmage plays.

Charles Hafley is an All-ACC candidate at strong safety for 2001 who had 106 tackles for the season, third highest on the team. That total included a team best 14 tackles in the Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech, including 11 first hits. He had a 27-yard interception return for a score in the win over Missouri and had eight passes broken up for the year, second best on the team. Eric Meekins is a free safety who should move into a starting role. He had 16 tackles and played 151 plays in the secondary a year ago. Rony DeLusme, another red-shirt freshman, looks to challenge Meekins at free safety.

Brian Mance is slated to move into a starting role at cornerback. The sophomore from Alcolu, SC started three games and had 39 tackles for the season ninth highest figure on the team. He had the most productive game for any defensive player all year against Missouri in week two. The cornerback, who is also a gifted return man, had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in just 16 plays, tying a Clemson record for defensive takeaways in a single game.

Kevin Johnson looks to move into Ryan Hemby was impressive during practice in his red-shirt season at cornerback, while Toure Francis is a walk-on who turned heads as a special teams player last year.

Special Teams

“For the first time since I have been here we have returning players with experience on the special teams,” said Bowden. “We have our starting placekicker back, our starting snapper, the man who handled kickoffs, and the holder. We also have a punter who has worked as a starter in big games for two years in the SEC. The return game should also be in good hands with players returning who have handled kickoffs and punts. Plus some young players with outstanding credentials who want to challenge the returning players in that area.”

Clemson had a strong 2000 season in regards to special teams. The Tigers ranked in the top 40 in the nation in punt returns, kickoff returns and net punting. Placekicking showed improvement as the year progressed, highlighted by the three field goal game Aaron Hunt recorded in the regular season finale against South Carolina. That included the game winner with just three seconds remaining.

He added two field goals against Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, meaning he kicked half of his 10 field goals in the last two games of the season. Hunt set a school record for extra points made last year (45-47) points scored by a freshman (75), and finished the season 10-16 on field goals.

Clemson will have a new punter this year, as 2000 starter Jamie Somaini (39.3 average) has graduated. Wynn Kopp, had 82 punts in two years at Georgia, so he will give Clemson an experienced punter. Kopp had a 36.9 net punting average in 1999, a level no Clemson punter has reached since 1995.

Clemson averaged 15.0 yards per punt return in 2000, 14th best in the nation and tops in the ACC. It marked just the fourth time in history that Clemson had won the ACC punt return championship.

Two different Tigers returned punts for touchdowns, the first time that has happened since 1987. Both return in 2001. Joe Don Reames ranked 25th in the nation with a 12.2 average. His 69-yard punt return for a score changed the momentum of the Virginia game.

Clemson’s kickoff return game was balanced as three different players had at least five returns. Reames had a 22.6 yard average on seven run backs, while Mance averaged 26.8 on five returns. On 13 punt, interception and kickoff returns combined last year, Mance averaged 32.5 yards a return.

Clemson’s special teams coverage units were strong last year and should be an area of strength in 2001. Opponents had an average start of their own 24-yard line. Tony Lazzara will be back to handle the kickoffs. He had 17 touchbacks last year and 30 times the opposition had to start at their own 20 or worse.

The kickoff and punt return defenders were led by Rodney Thomas last year, a second-team linebacker who will see more time on scrimmage plays this year. He had 26 special teams tackles for the year, a school single season record.