Aug. 5, 2003
Clemson’s football program has been to a bowl game each of the first four years of the Tommy Bowden era. He is the first Clemson coach to achieve that distinction and it marks the first time since the 1985-91 era that Clemson has gone to a bowl game four consecutive seasons.
With the return of 13 starters, including eight on offense, plus the return one of the top placekickers in the nation in Aaron Hunt, and perhaps the top return tandem in the nation in Justin Miller and Derrick Hamilton, returning to postseason play is certainly an attainable goal for the 2003 Tigers. The elevation to active duty of a talented 2002 first-year freshman class that included 17 players who red-shirted should also enhance Clemson’s outlook for the coming season. That class should give the Tigers the depth it lacked at times during the 2002 season.
The Tigers are coming off a 7-6 campaign that included a victory over arch-rival South Carolina to finish the regular season. It was Clemson’s third win in the last four years over the Gamecocks under Bowden. Clemson also gained victories over bowl teams Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The season began with a last minute 31-28 loss to eventual SEC champion and #3 Georgia. Clemson fans wonder what might have been had the Tigers pulled out the season opener that late summer night in Athens.
The Tigers were improved on defense in 2002, holding the opposition to 40 less yards of total offense per game. The point-prevention unit allowed the Bulldogs to gain just 203 yards of total offense, their season low in a 13-1 campaign. The Tigers intercepted 21 passes altogether in 2002, the program’s highest figure since 1995, ranking 10th in the nation in that area.
The returning defensive leaders include sophomore All-America candidate Justin Miller, who led the ACC in both kickoff returns and interceptions, linebacker John Leake, who averaged 13 tackles per game last year, fourth best in the nation, and defensive end Khaleed Vaughn.
Offensively, Clemson gained 4,726 yards in 2002, the sixth-highest figure in Clemson history. That total included a school record 3,157 yards passing. Two different Clemson quarterbacks (Willie Simmons and Charlie Whitehurst) passed for at least 1,500 yards, a first in school history. Whitehurst returns for his sophomore year and will be Clemson’s starting signal caller. Three different Tiger receivers caught 50 passes, and two of them return (Kevin Youngblood and Hamilton). The top rusher (Yusef Kelly) and four of the five starting offensive linemen over the last half of the season are also back.
“We should be better across the board,” said Bowden, who is the 10th-winningest active coach in Division I football. “Offensively we have veteran players back at all the key positions and we should have depth in all areas. We red-shirted some talented offensive linemen last year. If I had to do the season over, I would have played some of those first year freshmen.”
“On defense, we return just five starters, but we played a lot of backups. As a result, we have four of our top six linebackers returning, six of our top seven defensive ends and six defensive backs who helped us make significant improvement in the secondary last year.”
“We should be much improved on special teams. Aaron Hunt is one of the most accurate placekickers in the nation; and in Justin Miller, we have two of the top kick returners in the country. They can really make something happen. We will be improved in the punting game and in terms of coverage.”
“Although we have gone to a bowl game each of the last four years, we certainly aspire to win more games and eventually challenge for the ACC championship and a BCS bowl.”
To contend for that championship, a title Clemson has not won since 1991, Clemson will have to improve in the running game, offensively and defensively. Clemson failed to reach Bowden’s stated goal of 2,000 yards on the ground offensively, and allowed teams to reach that 2,000-yard mark against the Clemson defense, although it took 13 games for the opposition to reach that number.
“This spring, we focussed on improving our running game and stopping the run. We made improvement in that area. The offense had the upper hand in the practices prior to the Spring Game, but then the defense had the upper hand in that area during the final scrimmage on Riggs Field.”
“Last year, our longest run by a running back was just 32 yards. We had just nine rushes for 20 yards or more all year. We need to find a back who can go the distance, break a long run. On defense, we must stop the run better than we did last year.”
Showing improvement in the victory column will be a challenge. The Tigers open the season for the second straight year against a top-10 Georgia team. This year, the contest will be in Death Valley, Georgia’s first trip to Clemson since 1995. Clemson’s four ACC road games are all against league opponents who played in bowl games in 2002. The Tigers close the season at rival South Carolina as well.
Offense (8 returning starters, 16 returning lettermen) Clemson returns eight players who started over the last half of the season, including four of the five starting offensive linemen. Balance has been a hallmark of successful Clemson teams of the past. The program has never lost a game in its history when gaining at least 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing in the same game. Improving the ground attack, especially in short-yardage, to attain that balance will be a barometer Bowden will follow this year.
“We need to improve our short-yardage offense,” said Bowden. “We struggled in short-yardage last year. That is something we spent a lot of time on in the spring and will continue to do that in August.”
A more experienced and deeper offensive line could be the key for the Tigers in that area. Clemson’s starting offensive linemen played every snap in a combined 35 games last year.
“We are counting on the red-shirt freshmen to contribute as either starters or backups. They have the potential to see a lot of playing time this year. We would like to get to the point where the starters play 50 snaps and the backups play 20 this year. We really haven’t been able to do that since I have been at Clemson. But, red-shirting that group last year could allow us to do that. They got a lot of experience this past spring.”
The review of Clemson’s depth chart on offense starts at quarterback. Charlie Whitehurst is number #1 on the depth chart after a record-setting freshman season. Whitehurst was the starter over the last five games of the season when he led Clemson to a 3-2 record. He joined Rodney Williams as the only freshmen in Clemson history to lead the Tigers to at least three victories. He led the Tigers to wins over Duke and North Carolina on the road and South Carolina at home in the final month of the season, leading Clemson to a bowl bid.
The son of former Green Bay Packer quarterback David Charlie Whitehurst completed 34-52 passes for 420 yards and four touchdowns at Duke in his first college start. He established Clemson single-game records for completions and passing yards in that first start, a 34-31 Tiger victory. The performance included leading Clemson to a game-winning field goal with just eight seconds left. His second week, he threw for just 274 yards, but again threw for four scores in a victory at North Carolina. His passing efficiency of 241 for that game was a Clemson single-game record.
For the season, Whitehurst set Clemson freshman records for completions (123), attempts (214), passing yards (1,554), and touchdown passes (10). His most impressive and important performance came against South Carolina in the regular-season finale when he completed 27-38 passes for 287 yards. He did not throw an interception and scored the tying touchdown on a nifty 11-yard run in the final quarter.
“Charlie is our starting quarterback,” said Bowden. “He had an outstanding freshman year. He beat out a veteran Willie Simmons at midseason and was very impressive in three victories at the end of the season. He had a solid spring and won the starting job.”
Simmons had another year of eligibility and went through spring practice. But, when he was not named the starter he decided to transfer to Florida A&M for his final year.
Bowden has two other players who will compete for the backup position. Red-shirt freshmen Will Proctor and Chansi Stuckey play the position with different styles, but both have the potential to be very effective signal callers. Stuckey was named the second-team quarterback at the end of spring practice. He showed outstanding running ability with some Woodrow Dantzler-like moves during scrimmages. He also showed an ability to hit on the long pass. Proctor completed seven of his last 10 passes in spring scrimmages.
Perhaps the strongest and most deep area of the team will be the four receiver positions. As stated above, Clemson set a school record for completions and passing yardage in a season in 2002. Players who caught 187 of those 268 passes return for this season. Four publications have named Clemson’s receiving corps among the top-10 units in the nation.
Leading the receiver group are veterans Derrick Hamilton. Both caught at least 50 passes in 2002 and this will be the first time in history Clemson has a pair of 50-catch receivers returning. They combined for 111 catches for 1,193 yards and four scores.
Both are already ranked in the top 20 in Clemson history in total receptions and reception yards and are both ranked among the top-20 receivers in the nation by various preseason publications.
Youngblood led the way with 59 catches for 591 yards and two scores in 2002. He began the year with six catches for 66 yards at Georgia on ESPN and finished the year with a career-best 134 receiving yards on seven catches in an ESPN game against Texas Tech. The native of Jacksonville, FL caught at least one pass in every game last year. It was quite a comeback season for the native of Jacksonville because he suffered a broken leg in preseason practice for 2001 and missed the entire season.
Hamilton had 52 receptions for 602 yards and two scores in 2002. He now has 105 receptions in two seasons, the first player in Clemson history to catch at least 100 balls by the end of his sophomore year. He is more than 60 percent of the way to Rod Gardner’s school record of 166.
The junior is an all-purpose player for the Tigers. He was one of just two players nationally to record at least 200 yards rushing, receiving, in punt returns, and kickoff returns in 2002. He led the ACC in all-purpose yards with a Clemson record 1,883 yards, ranking 20th in the nation in that category with 144.8 yards per game. He had four games of at least 200 all-purpose running yards, including the victory over Georgia Tech when he had a 77-yard run and a 79-yard punt return.
Another big-play performer is junior Airese Currie, a starter in six of the 13 games a year ago. Ranked fifth in Clemson history in yards per reception with a 17.7 figure, Currie caught an 83-yard game breaker from Whitehurst at North Carolina last year, the longest pass play in the history of Kenan Stadium. He had 16 catches for 282 yards and three scores a year ago. Also an All-American in track at Clemson, he was clocked at 10.29 in the 100 meters when he won the NCAA East Regional championship last spring.
Clemson will miss 2002 seniors J.J. McKelvey (52 catches for 785 yards) and team-leader Jackie Robinson (18 receptions for 229 yards), but two newcomers should fill in nicely. Red-shirt freshman Kelvin Grant and Tennessee transfer Michael Collins are a pair of young, athletic, and tall receivers who will have an immediate impact.
“We have two outstanding additions to our receiver corps in Kelvin Grant and Michael Collins. They will get a lot of work in the fall, but are certainly capable of making the big play for us. This offense counts on receivers making big plays and they can both fill this role.”
Grant had three catches for a team-best 72 yards in the Spring Game. Grant was the most highly-recruited member of Clemson’s 2002 recruiting class. He was a USA Today All-American in 2001 who caught 59 passes for 1,184 yards and 13 scores. He was ranked as the #4 wide receiver in the nation by SuperPrep. Collins is a gifted all-around athlete from Georgia who also practiced with the Clemson basketball team last year.
Clemson’s offense relies on the use of many receivers and that will be the case again this year. Curtis Baham is a red-shirt sophomore who made progress last spring.
The tight end position is in good hands with the return of Ben Hall and Bobby Williamson. Hall has been the starter each of the last two years and has 20 catches for 240 yards and four touchdowns over the two years. He was named a freshman All-American in 2001 when he caught a Clemson freshman tight end record three touchdown passes. Williamson had five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown last year. The outstanding blocker had a solid spring including a four-catch, 61-yard performance in the Spring Game.
Bowden has a diverse roster of running backs. He is looking for someone who can be a game breaker, something he has never had in his four previous years at Clemson. He has some young players who could fill that role, and still has tough veteran players who will give the Tigers that needed change of pace.
The top returning rusher from last year is junior Yusef Kelly. The bullish all-around back gained 520 yards in 125 attempts and scored eight touchdowns, sixth best in the ACC. He also showed his ability as a receiver with 18 catches, fourth on the Clemson team. He started just four of the 13 games last year, but ranked second on the team in runs of 10 yards or more. He had 48 yards rushing on the clinching drive in the win over South Carolina last year.
Chad Jasmin is another veteran back who is capable of contributing in the backfield in a number of areas. The graduate student from Louisiana has a 4.4 career rushing average and also has three career touchdown receptions, including two in the win at North Carolina last year. He is perhaps the best blocker among the Tiger running backs.
“We have many different types of running backs,” said Bowden. “Yusef Kelly, Chad Jasmin, and Reggie Merriweather will get you some tough yards on the inside. Kyle Browning and Duane Coleman throw defenses a change of pace. David Dunham and Cliff Harrell are two fullbacks who will make a significant contribution. All of them catch the ball out of the backfield. That is important in this offense.”
“We just need to find a runner who can break the long one.”
The main candidates for the game-breaker runs are Coleman, Merriweather, and Browning. Browning saw limited action as a red-shirt freshman last year, but has shown that ability in practice. Coleman sat out last year, but the native of Naples, FL was regarded as the top running back in Florida two years ago when he averaged an amazing 11.4 yards per rush and scored 40 touchdowns. Merriweather was the top break-away threat in the spring when he had two runs of 75 yards during scrimmages.
Clemson returns four of its five starters in the offensive line. Plus, five red-shirts are ready to make an impact. Clemson must replace Gary Byrd, the 2002 starting right tackle, who was Clemson’s most highly-rated offensive lineman last year.
Leading the returning starters is Gregory Walker, who will be in his third season as a starter on the line. A guard the last three years, Walker will be the starting right tackle this year. The 320-pounder led the Tigers in knockdown blocks in five games and was the highest-graded Clemson offensive lineman in seven contests. He played every snap in seven of the 13 games.
The other tackle will be graduate student William Henry. Slated to be a backup last year, he was thrown into the fire when starter Derrick Brantley tore an ACL in the second game of the year. Henry went from not playing at all in the opener against Georgia to serving as a mainstay at left tackle. In fact, he played the complete game in nine of the 13 games and played 797 snaps for the season.
Returning at guard is Cedric Johnson, a junior who played 887 snaps last year, the second-highest figure on the team. Johnson was the team leader in average film grade in five games last year and led the squad in knockdown blocks three times. Joining Johnson at guard will be red-shirt freshman Nathan Bennett, who won a battle with returning letterman Chip Myrick, at guard.
Jermyn Chester and Tommy Sharpe combined to start at the center position in 2002. Chester started the first eight games, while Sharpe handled the snapping duties the last five games. Chester suffered a knee injury in March that forced him to end his playing career, so the job belongs to the former walk-on Sharpe. He had an outstanding final five games of the season and was a big reason for Whitehurst’s success during that time. He led the team in knockdown blocks in three of his five starts.
Bowden is excited about the prospects of his young offensive linemen. In addition to Bennett, Dustin Fry is an athletic 319-pound center who will bring competition to the center position. Roman Fry is a 285-pound tackle from Ohio who could be a factor. Brad Lee and Tim DeBeer are also slated to see action as backups in 2003. DeBeer must return from a dislocated ankle suffered in spring practice.
Defense (5 returning starters, 23 returning lettermen) Clemson returns just five starters from last year’s defense, but there are nine other players returning who played at least 100 snaps from scrimmage during the 2002 season. The Tigers have also moved a couple of offensive players over to defense in an effort to improve the team’s overall speed. Similar to the case on offense, the return of many talented red-shirt freshmen should help Clemson’s depth and hopefully overall defensive performance in 2003.
Leading the Clemson defense will be three-year starter Justin Miller. All three are certainly capable of having breakout seasons.
Leake, who has added 20 pounds of muscle and now weighs 240, is one of the top returning tacklers in the nation. The native of Plano, TX had 169 tackles last year and his 13.0 per-game figure ranked fourth best in the nation. A team leader, Leake now has 312 career tackles to rank 13th in Clemson history. His 169 stops last year ranked fifth best for a single season. In his third year as a starter, Leake combines quickness and toughness to be one of the top linebackers in the nation. He is ranked among the top outside linebackers in the nation by various preseason publications.
“John Leake has gone from a special teams player as a freshman to our top tackler,” said Bowden. “He is an outstanding leader of our defense in the middle. I look for John to have an all-conference type of season.”
Clemson must replace Rodney Thomas, a senior in 2002 who had 167 tackles a year ago. LeRoy Hill will battle for the starting middle linebacker position. Hill was the top special teams tackler on the Clemson team by far last year with 21 stops. He played just 47 snaps from scrimmage, but that figure will increase greatly this year. Also in the middle linebacker picture are Roosevelt Nelson, a special teams player much of last year, and Charles Bennett, who moves over from defensive end. Red-shirt freshman Anthony Waters, a highly regarded player during his first-year freshman season, and letterman Nigel Vaughn, will also be in the mix at a linebacker position.
Eric Sampson started 12 games last year at a linebacker position and had 79 tackles, the fourth-highest figure on the team. He had a season-best 15 stops in the win at Duke. Lionel Richardson, who had six first hits in the Spring Game, will also be in the mix at linebacker.
The most talented player on the Clemson team may be Miller, a sophomore cornerback. The native of Kentucky tied a Clemson record with eight interceptions last year. He was a first-team freshman All-American according to the Football Writers Association and The Sporting News. Miller led the ACC and ranked fifth in the nation in interceptions, quite an accomplishment considering he started just seven games on defense last year. He was Clemson’s only first-year freshman to appear in a game last year. He is ranked as a preseason first-team All-American by The Sporting News and is on the preseason lists for the Thorpe Award and the Bronco Nagurski Award.
Miller will hold down one of the cornerback positions. Last year he teamed with senior Tye Hill, TourFrancis, and Buddy Williams. Hill was listed as the starter after spring practice.
Hill was Clemson’s third-leading rusher last year when he averaged a team best 5.4 yards per carry. He had a 100-yard game at North Carolina. But, Bowden wishes to make use of his speed on defense and he played well in the secondary in the Spring Game when he made a leaping interception. Hill is also a standout on the Tiger track team.
Francis was a starting cornerback in the season opener against Georgia last season, but he suffered a torn ACL just 12 plays into the game. He should be back to 100 percent in the fall for the opener against the Bulldogs. Williams is a highly regarded red-shirt freshman who will get a strong opportunity in the spring and fall.
Jamaal Fudge and Travis Pugh look to hold down the safety positions. They must replace 2002 starters and four-year players Eric Meekins and Altroy Bodrick. Fudge saw action as a cornerback last year and had 27 tackles overall as a reserve. Pugh had 34 stops as Meekins’s backup a year ago and has the range to be an outstanding free safety. He led all tacklers in the Spring Game with eight stops. Reserves Tavaghn Monts and Gerald McCloud (a converted receiver) are also in the mix in the Tiger secondary. Monts had an interception and a fumble recovery in the Spring Game at Riggs Field.
Clemson’s deepest area on defense may be the defensive line. Clemson has eight returning lettermen for the four positions. The group is led by Khaleed Vaughn, who has started 25 of the last 26 Clemson games, including three bowl games. He had 60 tackles a season ago and had six tackles for loss, including four sacks. He was second on the team in quarterback pressures (18).
J.J. Howard, an athletic defensive end in his fifth season in the program, should finally get his chance at a starting assignment. The graduate had 34 tackles last season, including four tackles for loss. An athletic player who runs a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and can bench press 450 pounds, Howard can chase down an enemy quarterback and make the big play.
Junior Maurice Fountain, who played in all 13 games as a reserve last season, is another athletic defensive end. Fountain had two interceptions as a defensive end in 2002, including one in the late stages of the Louisiana Tech game that iced the Clemson victory. It was the first time since 1985 that a Clemson defensive lineman had two interceptions in a single season. Junior Vontrell Jamison, who played on the offensive line last year, and red-shirts Gaines Adams and Brandon Cannon, are also in the defensive end race this year. Adams led all Clemson players in sacks (5.5) in spring scrimmages.
The defensive tackle position is led by junior Donnell Washington and graduate student DeJuan Polk. Washington started all 13 games last year and had 55 tackles. At 6’6″ and 320 pounds, he has the potential to be Clemson’s chief run-stopper on the inside in 2003. Polk had 25 tackles as a reserve last year.
Eric Coleman will also challenge for a starting position. Coleman had 31 tackles a season ago, most among reserve defensive linemen. Senior Todd McClinton had 15 tackles in his 141 plays of action last year in an injury-plagued season. If healthy, McClinton could make a run for a starting position. Sophomore Trey Tate and red-shirt freshman Donnell Clark are a pair of young players who could contribute this year.
Special Teams Aaron Hunt leads the Clemson special teams from the placekicking position, while Justin Miller, the last two ACC kickoff return champions, give Clemson two of the best return men in the nation.
Hunt has made 37-50 field goals in his career, including 17-22 in 2002 when he was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award. Hunt is already Clemson’s career leader in extra points (126-130). He also made 17 of 19 field goals inside the 40 last year. He has come through in the clutch twice in his career, beating South Carolina (2000) and Duke (2002) with field goals inside the last 10 seconds of the game.
Clemson will start a new punter this year, as Wynn Kopp has graduated. Red-shirt freshman Cole Chason could be the leader for that job. Stephen Furr returns to handle the kickoffs and could be a candidate for the punter job.
Hamilton led the ACC in all-purpose yards and his success as a return man had a lot to do with that. The junior was third in the ACC and 48th in the country in punt returns with a 10.8-yard average. He ranked third in the nation in kickoff returns as a freshman. Hamilton was named to some preseason All-ACC teams as a receiver, kickoff returner, and punt returner. Miller was the ACC champion in kickoff returns with a 35.1 average, a Clemson single-season record. He scored on an 80-yard kickoff return against N.C. State on his first career kickoff return.
Clemson must make improvement in terms of defending returns. The Tigers allowed three kickoff returns for scores and two punt returns for touchdowns in 2002. Bowden had not allowed any returns for touchdowns in his first five years as a collegiate head coach.
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