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2002 Football Regular Season in Review

2002 Football Regular Season in Review

Dec. 11, 2002

Overview Clemson won three of its last four games to finish with a 7-5 record, and will be making its fourth straight bowl appearance under Tommy Bowden. Bowden is the first coach in Clemson history and just the third in ACC history to take a team to a bowl game in each of his first four years with the program.

Clemson opened the 2002 schedule with a huge test in Athens, GA. The Tigers fought the Georgia Bulldogs down to the wire, but eventually fell by a score of 31-28. the Tigers had a 47-yard field goal attempt fall just short with two minutes left.

Clemson then reeled off three straight victories at home, including a 24-19 win over Georgia Tech to open conference play. Following a bye week, the Tigers traveled to Tallahassee, FL for a Thursday night showdown with Florida State. The Tigers outplayed the Seminoles in several statistical areas, and trailed just 35-31 entering the fourth quarter, but fell 48-31. Two turnovers on special teams plays proved costly for the Tigers. The 31 points were the most scored by the Tigers against Florida State since 1989.

Clemson tried to rebound the following week against Virginia. However, the Cavaliers defeated the Tigers for the second consecutive year, 22-17. Clemson held a 124-yard total offense margin in the contest, but could not come away with the victory. Clemson won the next week on its homecoming against Wake Forest, after forcing five second-half turnovers, including a caused fumble by Brian Mance that bounced out of the endzone on Wake Forest’s final drive. Clemson played host to N.C. State five days later and the Wolfpack improved to 9-0 with an impressive 38-6 victory.

Clemson won a pair of road games at Duke and North Carolina to become bowl eligible behind freshman quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. Whitehurst set the Clemson completion (34) and passing yardage (420) records in his first college start, a 34-31 victory over Duke. Aaron Hunt booted a field goal with eight seconds left to win the game. The Tigers dropped to 4-4 in the ACC after losing to Maryland the following week. But Clemson put together one of its best all-around games of the season and scored 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points to defeat arch-rival South Carolina, 27-20.

The Tigers suffered several season ending injuries during the course of the season. Starting Cornerback Toure Francis tore his ACL in the first half of the loss to Georgia and was lost for the season, while starting offensive tackle Derrick Brantley suffered the same injury the following week against Louisiana Tech. Backup guard Nick Black suffered a broken leg against Florida State in the fifth game, and reserve defensive back Ronny Delusme also tore his ACL late in the season in a loss to Maryland. Tiger running backs Bernard Rambert and Yusef Kelly combined to miss four games due to injury.

Offense Clemson enters the Tangerine Bowl averaging 363.8 yards per game. That breaks down to 127.3 rushing and 236.5 passing per game. A young offensive line that has just one senior in the starting lineup, made progress over the course of the season. A highlight took place on the last drive of the regular season when Clemson protected a 27-20 lead by controlling the ball for 6:25 to run out the clock against South Carolina.

Clemson went through this season using two different starting quarterbacks. Charlie Whitehurst started the last four.

For the year, Simmons connected on 137 of 236 passes (58.1 percent) for a total of 1503 yards. His finest game of the year came against Florida State in early October, when he passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 50 yards in that game, giving him 343 yards of total offense, ninth best single game figure in Clemson history. He also threw two touchdown passes against Georgia Tech to lead the Tigers to a five-point victory. Simmons was replaced, however, after struggling to consistently hold onto the football. He lost five fumbles and threw seven interceptions.

Charlie Whitehurst, a redshirt freshman from Duluth, GA, completed 103 of 166 passes for 1291 yards and nine scores. He threw just two interceptions in his 166 attempts. Even though he played in just eight games, he reached the minimum amount of attempts to enter the Clemson record books. Heading into the bowl game he is first in Clemson history in completion percentage (.620), passing efficiency (142.9) and interception avoidcance (1.2 percent).

The son of former NFL quarterback David Whitehurst made the most of his first career start against Duke on November 2. He set a school record by completing 34 of 52 passes for 420 yards. He also tied a school record by throwing four touchdowns. The following week, Whitehurst passed for 274 yards and again threw four touchdown passes against North Carolina. He finished the regular season on a positive note, as he hitting on 27 of 38 passes for 287 yards. The completions and passing yardage total were the most ever by a Clemson quarterback against South Carolina in the history of the 100-game rivalry. His 11-yard touchdown scamper tied the game in the fourth quarter, then he set up the winner with a 30-yard pass to graduate student Jackie Robinson.

The quarterbacks played most of the year behind an injury-plagued offensive line. Some serious changes to the depth chart were made following season-ending injuries to Black and Brantley. William Henry, a graduate student from Greenville, SC, replaced Brantley at right tackle. He did not even play in the opener against Georgia, then played every snap in eight of the last 11 games.

Tommy Sharpe, a former walk-on from Albany, GA, split time with Jermyn Chester for most of the year at center. However, Sharpe regained the starting spot against North Carolina and finished out the year as the Tigers’ center. He had 33 knockdown blocks over the last three games, more than any other Tiger.

The leader of the offensive line is graduate student Gary Byrd, a veteran of 26 starts at left tackle for his career, including every game this year. He led the team in knockdown blocks with 89. Included in those starts are the 2001 Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech, and last year’s Humanitarian Bowl against Louisiana Tech, the only active offensive player to start a pair of bowl games. Byrd earned honorable mention All-ACC honors this season.

Greg Walker started all 12 games at a guard position and had an average grade of 89 percent, highest on the team. He had 23 intimidation blocks, double any other Clemson lineman, and had 87 knockdown blocks overall, second behind Byrd’s total. He will be one of the senior leaders of the Clemson team next year. Cedric Johnson started 11 of the 12 games as a sophomore at right tackle and has experience at center, guard and tackle over his Clemson career.

Redshirt sophomore Bernard Rambert. His most productive games of the season were against Louisiana Tech and Ball State, when he had 97 and 99 yards, respectively. Rambert ended his injury-plagued senior season with 485 yards, including 106 coming at North Carolina and 66 more in the win over South Carolina. Speedy red-shirt freshman Tye Hill also contributed this year, as he rushed for 105 yards at North Carolina, and had a 32-yard touchdown run at Virginia. His 209 rushing yards ranked third on the team and his 5.6 average ranked first among running backs.

Perhaps the most productive unit for Clemson’s offense was the wide receiver corps. Clemson had three of the top 10 receivers in the ACC in terms of catches per game, and all three ranked in the top 100 in the nation. The trio of Kevin Youngblood, J.J. McKelvey and Derrick Hamilton combined for 150 catches for over 1700 yards and eight scores. All three players are 6-4 or taller, one a sophomore, one junior and one senior.

Youngblood, coming off a broken leg during 2001, returned to form in 2002 and hauled in 52 catches to lead the Tigers in total receptions He caught two touchdown passes, including one in the season opener at Georgia. J.J. McKelvey, a senior from Moncks Corner, SC, had a breakout senior season with 50 catches for 752 yards. He led the team in yards per game and had three 100-yard outings, second best in the ACC. He had 13 catches of over 20 yards and scored four touchdowns, best on the team.

The third member of the successful trio of receivers is red-shirt sophomore Derrick Hamilton. He caught 48 passes for 530 yards and also rushed for 208. The sophomore has already gone over 100 receptions for his career, the first sophomore in Clemson history to do that. His 4.2 receptions per game is a Clemson career record. His best game of the year was against Georgia Tech, when he had 256 all-purpose yards and was named the ACC’s Offensive Back of the Week. His 1652 yards and 137.7 average in terms of all-purpose running led the ACC this year. He needs just 131 yards against Texas Tech to break Tony Horne’s single season record for all-purpose running. Hamilton is one of just two players nationally to have at least 200 yards, receiving, rushing, on punt returns and kickoff returns this year.

Airese Currie, one of the fastest players on the team and an All-America sprinter on Clemson’s top five men’s track team, started off slowly this year but came on strong in the second half of the schedule. He ended the season with 15 catches for 280 yards, which equates to a team-best 18.7 yards per reception. His 18.3 career yards per catch figure is third best in Clemson history. His 83-yard touchdown against North Carolina was the longest play of the year for the Tigers and the longest pass play ever at North Carolina’s Keenan Stadium.

Jackie Robinson, a graduate student from Orangeburg, SC, finished off his Clemson career with 17 catches this season. In his final home game, he caught four passes for 49 yards and set up Clemson’s go-ahead touchdown with a 30-yard reception to the Clemson one. J.J. McKelvey at Florida State that led to a score.

Ben Hall, a highly regarded sophomore tight end, suffered some nagging injuries that affected his play. He finished with 10 catches for 146 yards. His best game was against Florida State, when he caught three balls for 69 yards.

Defense The biggest area of improvement for the 2002 Tigers has been the defense. New defensive coordinator John Lovett, who came to Clemson from Auburn, implemented various schemes this season and saw the total defense improve by leaps and bounds. Led by six seniors, the Tiger defense limited No. 3 Georgia to 203 total yards and set the tone for the season.

One area of improvement within the defense was the play of the defensive line. This group was led by Nick Eason, a first-team All-ACC selection this year. Eason had seven sacks and nine tackles for loss among his 62 tackles, despite seeing several double-teams throughout the year. His sack total is the highest by a Clemson defensive tackle since 1996 when current Denver Broncos All-Pro Trevor Pryce had 7.5. He had two sacks against both Georgia Tech and Duke. The graduate student is also considered the team leader off the field.

Bryant McNeal, a senior defensive end from Swansea, SC, had a tremendous season with eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss and earned second-team All-ACC honors. His highlight of the year came in the opener when he raced 55 yards with a fumble to score his only collegiate touchdown at Georgia. McNeal finished the season 64 tackles, fifth on the team and first among defensive linemen. His 21 career sacks rank sixth best in Clemson history.

Clemson also saw improvement from linemen Donnell Washington and Khaleed Vaughn, who combined for five sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Washington finished the regular season with 55 tackles, while Vaughn matched his uniform number with 56. J.J. Howard and Maurice Fountain, two backup defensive ends, also showed improvement as they combined for three sacks and six tackles for loss. Fountain also had two interceptions, a rarity for a defensive end. His 43-yard return led to a score in the fourth quarter of the Louisiana Tech game.

The Clemson linebackers were led by Rodney Thomas and John Leake. Leake is the only native of Texas on the Clemson team (Plano), and he had a team best 153 tackles. His total was second highest in the ACC and seventh best in the nation in 2002. His best game was against Maryland, when he notched 21 tackles in the loss. The honorable mention All-ACC player reached double figures in tackles in all but two games.

Thomas, a senior middle linebacker from Cadwell, GA, ended the year with 152 total tackles, third best in the ACC and eighth in the nation. He had seven stops behind the line of scrimmage and had double-figure tackle totals in all but three games. He earned honorable mention from the ACC for his play. Thomas enters the Tangerine Bowl with 306 career tackles, 13th best in Clemson history.

Clemson will have to replace its third linebacker, Eric Sampson. The sophomore was dismissed from the team at the end of the regular season. His replacement looks to be junior college transfer Kelvin Morris, who had 31 tackles as a reserve roverback this year. Brandon Jamison is another top replacement at linebacker. He led the team in fewest plays per tackle (one every 4.1 snaps on defense) and has 45 tackles overall were more than any other non-starter. Rodney Feaster is another backup linebacker who was productive with 40 tackles.

The most obvious area of improvement on this year’s defense was the play of the secondary. Clemson, who finished 66th last year in the nation in yardage defense, gave up only 175 yards per game this year to finish 17th nationally. The Tigers also intercepted 20 passes this season, best among ACC schools and tied for 10th in the nation. They will obviously be tested by a Texas Tech offense that averaged 55 passes per game.

Brian Mance, a senior from Alcolu, SC, started every game at one cornerback spot and grabbed six interceptions and had 11 pass deflections. The 17 passes defended led the team and ranked third in the ACC. He was named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week for his efforts against Wake Forest on October 19. He had an interception and caused a fumble on the goal line to preserve the win. For his career, Mance ranks tied for third in Clemson history with 12 interceptions. He received fourth-team All-America honors from The Sporting News this year.

You could make a case that the best player on the Clemson team this year was first-year freshman Justin Miller, the only first-year freshman to play in a game this season. The native of Owensboro, KY consistently made tremendous plays for the Tigers ever since taking over for Kevin Johnson in the team’s sixth game. Miller intercepted seven passes during the regular season, good enough for seventh-best in the nation and best in the ACC. He also has eight passes broken up and a total of 15 passes defended, a figure that ranks fourth in Clemson history for a freshman. He earned first-team Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News and was second-team All-ACC honors for his efforts. He needs just one interception to tie the Clemson single season record and named the ACC Rookie of the Week three times this year.

Altroy Bodrick and Eric Meekins started each of the team’s 12 games this year as starting safeties. Bodrick, who returned successfully from a torn ACL a year ago, had 58 tackles and his only career interception against Wake Forest. Meekins, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday on the day Clemson meets Texas Tech, ranked third on the team with 92 tackles from his free safety position. He had an interception against Duke and broke up five others.

Special Teams Clemson’s special teams unit has been characterized by consistent field goal kicking and a strong kick return game. Aaron Hunt, a junior placekicker from Oak Ridge, TN, had a strong year by connecting on 17 of 21 field goals. He made four field goals in one game two different times this year, against Louisiana Tech in September and Maryland in November. He was the only ACC kicker to made four field goals in a game this year. He was one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s top kicker. He made a season-long 47-yarder against Louisiana Tech and made 12 straight at one point this season.

Wynn Kopp, former transfer from Georgia, handled the punting duties this year and averaged 37 yards per punt. His best game was against Louisiana Tech, in which he booted two punts for an average of 47.5 yards. That included a season-best 53-yard effort. He had 16 punts inside the 20 for the season, double his output in that area from 2001.

The kick return team was an area of strength for Clemson this season. Justin Miller led the attack with 37 yards per return, which would be leading the NCAA if he had enough attempts. That total includes an 80-yard kickoff return against N.C. State, the lone score for Clemson in that contest. He was a big reason Clemson ranks third in the nation in kickoff returns entering the bowl season.

Derrick Hamilton has handled punt and kickoff return duties for the Tigers throughout this season. He averaged 10 yards per punt return in the regular season, which included an incredible 79-yard scamper against Georgia Tech. He also has a 21.6-yard average on kick returns. His long return of the year was 42 yards.

The top tacklers on special teams this year have been Leroy Hill with 19, Tommy Bowden coached team.