Clemson’s 2003 football season could not have ended on a more positive note. The Tigers won each of their last four games, one of just nine teams entering 2004 on a four-game winning streak. And, the Tigers didn’t just sneak by, as the four victories were recorded by a combined 108 points. Only Associated Press National Champion Southern Cal had a greater victory margin over the last four games of the season.
And, those victories were not against lower echelon teams. The Tigers defeated a third-ranked Florida State, 26-10, to start the streak, the highest ranked team Clemson has defeated in its history. The regular season concluded with a 63-17 victory over rival South Carolina, Clemson’s high point total in the history of the series and its greatest victory margin since 1900.
In the final game Clemson earned a 27-14 victory over a sixth-ranked Tennessee team in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the highest ranked team Clemson has defeated in a bowl game since the Tigers won the 1981 National Championship with a victory over fourth-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
Combined with a mid-season victory over a 24th ranked Virginia team, the 2003 Tigers recorded three top 25 wins, the most in one season since the 1981 National Championship team. It was just the second Clemson season in which the Tigers recorded a pair of top 10 wins.
The run of success to conclude the season brought the Tigers to a #22 final national ranking in the two major polls, and number-eight final ranking in the New York Times Computer. Head Coach Tommy Bowden was pleased with his team’s progress over the course of the season, but aspires to reach higher goals.
“We were satisfied with the way we played over the last part of the season, but we strive for more,” said Bowden, who was named ACC Coach of the Year in 2003, the second time he has won the award in his five years at Clemson. “We certainly have higher goals for this program. We want to reach BCS bowls, have a higher final national ranking and win the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.”
Bowden is not saying those are specific goals for this season, but making consistent progress towards those eventual achievements through consistency is a goal for 2004. “We have to be more consistent from one season to the next. The way we finished last year some people were putting the `Clemson’s Back’ headline on our season. We won’t be back until we show more consistency. We need to have consistency in terms of nine and 10-win seasons and contend for BCS bowls. That is what we strive for at Clemson.”
Early indications show that Clemson will be ranked among the preseason top 25 teams in the nation according to many services, rankings Clemson has not seen in the preseason since 2001 when Clemson was coming off a top 15 final ranking in 2000. Clemson does return seven starters on each side of the ball for just the second time in the last nine years and 56 total lettermen, tying for its high total in history.
But, Bowden must replace some talented players who were outstanding leaders. The senior class of 2003 will be remembered for its character and ability to overcome adversity. A late season loss to Wake Forest could have been devastating, but instead it became a rallying point.
“We lost some talented players on both sides of the ball, especially at wide receiver and the defensive line,” said Bowden. “You can evaluate their loss by looking at the statistics. But, it is hard to measure the impact from a leadership standpoint. We lost some seniors from last year who might not have had a lot of sacks or scored a lot of touchdowns, but they had a huge impact on our season.”
Three of the those players are Gregory Walker and DeJuan Polk, the three permanent captains for the 2003 season. “Our captains did a great job last year. They had the respect of their teammates and set a great example for the rest of the team. Now we need some seniors on the 2004 team to step up from a leadership standpoint just as the seniors of 2003 did. That is always an unknown heading into a season.”
Two players who could have provided leadership and production on the field in 2004 were wide receiver Derrick Hamilton and defensive tackle Donnell Washington, but both opted to enter the NFL draft after their red-shirt junior seasons and were third round selections. Hamilton was second-team All-ACC as a receiver and specialist. He left Clemson as the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yardage, kickoff return yards and total receptions. Washington was the 2003 defensive line leader in terms of tackles and he ranked third on the entire team in tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Other significant offensive losses from 2003 include wide receiver Kevin Youngblood, the team’s top receiver last year with 70 catches, and the number-five receiver in Clemson history, and multiple year offensive line starters Walker and William Henry, Clemson’s starting tackles. Walker was a second-team All-ACC selection last year and signed a free agent contract with the New York Giants.
Other significant losses on defense include John Leake, who had 131 tackles last year and 448 for his career, fifth in Clemson history, and defensive linemen Khaleed Vaughn and Polk. Vaughn was a three-year starter at defensive end, while Polk started every game a year ago.
Based on the losses listed above, Bowden must have players step up at wide receiver and the defensive line immediately. Youngblood and Hamilton combined for 132 receptions for 1923 yards and 12 touchdowns last year alone, while the three defensive linemen combined for 142 tackles, including 23 behind the line of scrimmage.
“We must replace some outstanding players from last year. You can see by the depth chart that inexperienced wide receivers and defensive linemen will have to step up this year. In our system those are very important areas of the football team. The four starters we lost on offense were a big reason we set the school record for total offense last year, and those four starters we lost on defense were a big reason we ranked in the top 20 in the nation in scoring defense.”
While Bowden will miss players of high ability and character off his 2003 team, he is pleased with the return of many talented athletes. His offense will feature quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, just the second ACC signal caller in history to reach 5,000 passing yards by the end of his sophomore season. The defense will be led by All-America candidate LeRoy Hill, who came from obscurity to rank second in the nation in tackles for loss (27) and rank fifth nationally in solo tackles.
Both 2004 leaders performed at a high level during Clemson’s four-game winning streak to end the season. Whitehurst threw for 288 yards per game and eight touchdowns in the four game winning streak to close the campaign, while Hill recorded 43 total tackles, including seven tackles for loss over the same period.
“Charlie and Leroy are certainly legitimate candidates for postseason honors this coming year. They finished strong and had outstanding years for us last season. But, we will look for them to continue their improvement in 2004. Both of them have great ability and have shown outstanding team leadership as underclassmen.” Whitehurst was listed on many preseason Heisman Trophy candidate lists, while Hill is listed among the top linebackers in the nation as a Butkus Award candidate.
Bowden has other all-star candidates on either side of the football. Cedric Johnson will be in his third season as a starter on the offensive line. A starter in all 13 games who played 850 total snaps, Johnson will be an anchor of the line from the left guard position. Airese Currie, who had 43 catches in an injury plagued junior season, will be the leader of the receiving corp. With a 10.22 time in the 100 meters for the Clemson track team during the spring of 2004, he is regarded as one of the fastest athletes in college football.
Bowden has the luxury of his top returning rusher from each of the last two season. Duane Coleman led the way last year with 615 yards and he also added 309 as a receiver out of the backfield. He joined Travis Zachery as the only players in Clemson history to rush for at least 600 yards and reach at least 300 pass receiving yards in the same year. Yusef Kelly, who has already earned his undergraduate degree, was healthy for just one complete game last year, a 25-88 performance in the overtime victory against Virginia. He led the team in rushing in 2002 and could have a renaissance season similar to the one graduate student Chad Jasmin had in 2003.
Bowden has six of his top seven linebackers and defensive backs returning for 2004. Justin Miller will join Hill as a postseason honors candidate as a cornerback and a kick returner. Clemson returns all four starters in the secondary for the first time in six years, giving the Tigers one of the top pass defending units in the nation. The unit is ranked second best in the nation by The Sporting News. Safeties Jamaal Fudge and Travis Pugh both were over 100 tackles last year. Cornerback Tye Hill, the ACC 60-meter indoor track champion, returns after starting 11 games opposite Miller at cornerback.
Bowden must replace Clemson career scoring leader and placekicker Aaron Hunt. The 2003 senior booted four field goals in Clemson’s landmark victory over Florida State on November 8 and finished his career with 329 points. Cole Chason, who out-punted Tennessee All-American Dustin Colquitt in the Peach Bowl, returns as the starting punter for 2004 as a sophomore.
Offense (7 returning starters, 28 returning lettermen) Clemson established a school record for total offense in a season with 5,467 yards in 2003, an average of 420.5 yards per game. Last year’s squad set a school record for passing yards in a season in the process, recording 3687 yards through the air, 283.6 per game. Clemson ranked 16th in the nation in passing yards, its highest national ranking in that category in history.
Despite the impressive numbers, especially through the air, Bowden is not sitting pat, he strives for more. “We still would like to be more balanced, get to that 2,000-yard rushing figure for a season. We improved from a rushing standpoint last year, because we got tougher in short yardage after we ran more I-formation. We developed some competition through depth in the offensive line. But, there is still a lot of work to be done in our running game. That is an area we will continue to work on in the spring.
“We will also work quite a bit on our red zone offense. We didn’t score enough touchdowns once we got in the red zone last year. I’ve got to do a better job of calling plays that will give us touchdowns once we get to the red-zone.”
Clemson’s offense is led by Whitehurst who has already established 33 Clemson records for passing and total offense. The junior has thrown for 5115 yards in just two seasons and 22 games, 18 as a starter. For the 2003 season, Whitehurst completed 288 of 465 yards for 3561 yards and 21 touchdowns. The completions, attempts and yards were all Clemson single season records and the touchdown pass total tied the Clemson record.
The native of Duluth, GA was a model of consistency as a sophomore as he threw for at least 240 yards in 11 of 13 games, including each of the last six contests to close the season. Effective as a runner when needed, Whitehurst ranked second only to ACC Player of the Year Philip Rivers in total offense, and ranked 14th in the nation with an average of 277.7 per game.
“Charlie had an outstanding sophomore year,” said Bowden. “He played consistently and showed improvement over the course of the season. But, he has another level, which he will achieve with more and more experience. He was not a highly recruited player out of high school due to an injury in his senior year. But, he has worked hard and is very coachable.”
The Clemson record for touchdown passes in one game is four, which Whitehurst has already done four times. He is Clemson’s career leader in passing efficiency and completion percentage and is already third in school history in passing yardage. He quarterbacked Clemson to two wins over top 10 teams within the last four games of the season, the first Clemson quarterback to do that since Homer Jordan in 1981.
Whitehurst will be backed up by red-shirt sophomore Will Proctor, a native of Orlando, FL who played in five games as a reserve receiver last year.
Clemson had three of the top 100 receivers in the nation on a receptions per game basis last year, but only one returns. Currie, a swift and athletic flanker from Columbia, SC had 43 catches for 560 yards in 10 games a year ago. He missed three games due to injury, but still had a positive impact on the 2003 season. He established the Clemson single game reception record when he had 12 catches in a win over Middle Tennessee State in the third game of the season. He enters his senior year with 77 receptions for 1162 yards and eight scores. He needs just 11 receptions to enter the top 10 in Clemson history.
Curtis Baham will be looked upon as a strong candidate to move into the starting lineup. Like Whitehurst the son of a former NFL player, Baham had 22 receptions for 241 yards and one touchdown. He might have been the most improved offensive player in 2003. He played just six snaps in two games in 2002, then had at least one catch in each of Clemson’s final eight games in 2003.
Kevin Youngblood, Clemson’s top receiver on a receptions basis last year. Collins was a star in the Spring Game with two touchdown receptions.
One of the most intriguing stories of the Clemson team this year will be Chansi Stuckey. Clemson’s backup quarterback last year as a red-shirt freshman, Stuckey completed 11-21 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns. He was even more impressive as a runner as he had 136 yards in 17 carries, a team best 8.0 yards per carry figure. Stuckey played some wide receiver at the end of the season and had two receptions. A challenge for opposing defenses in the open field, Stuckey moved to a slot wide receiver in the spring where he hopes to contribute some of the big plays Hamilton made in the previous three years.
Bowden returns his leading rusher from each of the last two seasons in Coleman and Kelly. Coleman led the team in 2003 with 615 yards and two scores. He had 924 yards from scrimmage when including his receiving yards. The Floridian had 34 catches out of the backfield, just the second Clemson running back to exceed 30 catches in a season. Coleman had 22 of Clemson’s 58 runs of 10 yards or more last season.
Kelly had just 125 yards rushing in 2003, but had 520 in 2002 when he led the team. The duo could give Clemson a strong one-two punch at running back, as Coleman is more of a breakaway all-purpose back, while Kelly is a power back who is capable of wearing down the opposing defense. Kyle Browning started two games at running back in 2003 and the Tigers won both games by large margins. He averaged 5.2 yards per rush and had one of the highlights of the season when he scored on an eight yard run on a “Panther Play” against Tennessee. Browning played in the secondary in the spring, but will return to the offensive backfield in the fall.
Reggie Merriweather is a third returning letterman at running back who is capable of seeing plenty of playing time in 2004. Red-shirt freshman Brandon Nolen also will see playing time at running back.
Clemson returns its top two fullbacks from last year in Cliff Harrell and Steven Jackson. Harrell is a 255-pounder who carried the ball just three times last year, but started six games and played in 13. Jackson did not carry the ball all season, but combined with Harrell to be major reasons the Tigers improved in short yardage last season. Jackson is also one of the top Tiger defenders on kickoff coverage.
And, speaking of blocking, the Tigers return both starting guards, the starting center and two tight ends with starting experience. Bowden was successful in spreading out the playing time along the offensive line last year. For the first time since he came to Clemson in 1999, the Tigers were truly two-deep across the front.
Leading the line in 2003 will be red-shirt senior offensive guard Cedric Johnson. The all-star candidate was Clemson’s highest graded offensive lineman over the course of the season with an 85.8 percent grade for 13 games. He has started 25 of the 26 games over the last two years and appeared in over 1600 plays. He graded in the 80s in 12 of the 13 games last year when he was Clemson’s highest rated lineman in six games. Freshman Brandon Pilgrim, who played 145 snaps in 11 games as a first-year freshman most by any Clemson first year freshman offensive lineman since 1975, will back up Johnson.
Also returning as starters for 2004 are Tommy Sharpe at center and Nathan Bennett at right guard. Sharpe is an original walk-on from Albany, GA who has been a starter in 16 of the 18 starts for Whitehurst. He will again be the front-runner at center this year. He ranked second on the Clemson team in knockdown blocks with 56, a category he led in four different games. He will be challenged for the first-team position by Dustin Fry, a 320-pound sophomore who made strong improvement over the course of his freshman season.
Bennett started seven of the 13 games last year and was statistically considered the starter for the course of the season, but Chip Myrick started six of the last seven. Myrick was listed as the starter at the end of spring practice, but both will be in another battle for that starting position in 2004. Bennett had a season high 12 knockdowns in the win over Florida State, while Myrick had a grade of at least 80 percent in seven of his 13 games, including a 91 percent grade in the overtime victory over Virginia.
Bowden must replace both his starting tackles, a worrisome proposition for any head coach. Roman Fry and Roman Fry (no relation to Dustin) is a 285-pound red-shirt sophomore from Ohio who averaged 23 snaps per game in 2003. He played a significant role in Clemson’s wins over Florida State, Duke, South Carolina and Florida State, as he played 83 snaps in those victories combined. Dukes played 97 plays in 10 games as a first-year freshman. Brad Lee and Tim DeBeer look to serve as backup tackles in 2004.
The tight end position is in great hands with the return of senior Ben Hall and junior Bobby Williamson, both of whom have served as starters over the course of their respective careers. Williamson led the Tiger tight ends in receptions last year with 12 for 105 yards, while Hall led the team in that category in 2001 as a freshman. Hall, who is listed as the starter entering the fall, had three catches last year, but had a 39-yard touchdown reception at South Carolina to key Clemson’s first quarter offensive explosion. Kevin Burnette and Thomas Hunter are two more returning lettermen at tight end.
Defense (7 returning starters, 23 returning lettermen) Clemson made great strides defensively in comparison to 2002, and over the course of the 2003 season. Clemson finished the season 20th in the nation in scoring defense, its highest ranking in that important category in six years. The Tigers yielded just 336 yards per game, including just 204.5 yards per game passing, second best in the ACC.
Clemson was especially stingy over the last four games of the season when it gave up just 12 points per game, 321 yards per game, including just 80 yards per game on the ground. The Tigers gave up just six touchdowns over the last four contests.
Again, while the numbers were impressive, especially at the conclusion of the season, Bowden strives for more. “We have to get to the point where we are creating more turnovers. To play at a high level, to win championships you have to be outstanding on defense and create easy opportunities for your offense. Most of the time you do that by creating turnovers, giving your offense a short field.”
The leader of Clemson’s defense is senior linebacker LeRoy Hill. An unknown who had never started a game entering the 2003 season, Hill ranked in the top 10 in the nation in tackles for loss, and first hits. In addition to his mention among Butkus candidates, Hill is on the preseason list for the Lombardi Award and the Nagurski Award.
“LeRoy Hill reminds me of Keith Adams in that his motor never stops,” said Bowden. “He has the quickness and the toughness to be one of the best in the nation. He comes to play every day and will be one of our team leaders this season.”
Hill, Clemson’s only first-team All-ACC selection and third in the voting for league defensive player of the year honors, had 145 tackles last year to lead the team after he had recorded just 60 tackles in his first two years combined. His 27 tackles for loss tied for second in Clemson history, trailing only the 35 recorded by the aforementioned Adams, who also wore #43 for Clemson. Adams is now in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Hill will be the first to tell you that 2003 senior John Leake had a big impact on his improvement. The native of Texas, who finished his career in the top five in Clemson history in tackles, will be missed. Many young but talented players will be vying for Leake’s vacant starting position.
Sophomore Anthony Waters is certainly a strong candidate. The 6-3, 235-pounder had 35 tackles as Leake’s backup last year and has shown the athleticism to be a factor on Clemson’s defense next season. Roosevelt Nelson and David Dunham are two other inside linebackers in the mix for 2004. Nelson has earned two letters as a reserve, mostly on special teams, while Dunham made an in-season move from fullback to linebacker a success story. He recovered a North Carolina fumble in the Clemson end-zone on the Tar Heels last possession to preserve a Clemson victory. Red-shirt freshman Nick Watkins, a standout in practice last year as a first-year freshman, will also challenge for playing time in 2004 at linebacker.
The strongest aspect of Clemson’s defense should be the secondary. Third-year defensive coordinator John Lovett, who also tutors the defensive backs, has brought Clemson’s pass defense to another level since he took over in 2002. The Tigers were second in the ACC in passing yards allowed and second in interceptions last season. All four starters return to the secondary for Clemson, including three who started all 13 games.
Justin Miller should be considered among the top cornerbacks in the nation in 2004. He had 15 passes defensed to lead the Tigers and now has 32 for his first two years, more than halfway to Donnell Woolford’s career record of 54. Also, an excellent return man, Miller had 54 tackles, 45 of which were first hits. He had a strong performance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl when he had two passes broken up, seven tackles and his first career sack.
Also returning as a starting cornerback is Tye Hill. The junior moved from running back to cornerback last year and it paid off for the Tiger defense. He had 37 tackles and two interceptions. His theft on the second defensive series of the Florida State game set the tone for the contest in the Clemson victory over the third-ranked Seminoles. He is also one of the top performers on the Clemson men’s track team as he was the 60 meter indoors and the 100 meters outdoors ACC champion for 2004.
Robert Reese and Sergio Gilliam, a pair of young, but athletic players, will provide backup strength at corner. C.J. Gaddis is one of the top athletes on the Clemson team and played half of the spring at quarterback and half in the secondary. Also a member of the Clemson baseball team, Gaddis will also get playing time at cornerback in the fall.
Clemson is also very experienced at the safety positions. Jamal Fudge started all 13 games at roverback and finished the season with 116 tackles, third on the team and second in the ACC among sophomores. Just 5-10 and 190 pounds, Fudge is one of the hardest hitters on the team, as he demonstrated in the win over Virginia when he jarred the ball loose in the endzone from All-ACC tight end Heath Miller, a key to Clemson’s overtime triumph.
Travis Pugh is the returning starter at free safety. He was fourth on the team and third among returnees in tackles with 102. He had 77 first hits and 10 passes defensed as a starter in all 13 games last year. He played 821 snaps, second ranking total on the team. He had a three-game streak of double figure tackle games late in the season, including the victory over Florida State.
The backups at safety include Roy Walker, a 6-3 roverback who red-shirted the 2003 season, and Tavaghn Monts, who is a 6-2 athlete who made 15 tackles and played 90 snaps on defense. Monts was the leading tackler in the spring game.
Clemson’s defensive line must replace three starters from a group that improved from a rushing defense stance over the course of the season. Florida State gained just 11 net yards rushing against the Tigers last year, the low figure by a Bobby Bowden coached Seminole team.
Maurice Fountain is the only returning starter on the defensive line. The athletic 6-4, 250-pounder started eight games last year after J.J. Howard suffered a torn ACL. Fountain had 39 tackles, including six tackles for loss and two sacks. He ranked second on the team in quarterback pressures with 17.
Seniors Vontrell Jamison and Eric Coleman have never started a game, but they played a combined 604 snaps on defense last year and are primed and ready for a frontline role. Coleman, a native of Charlottesville, VA, had 34 tackles, including seven tackles for loss last year. He finished the year strong, as he had a caused fumble, a pass deflection and a pair of tackles against Tennessee. He was Clemson’s most productive interior defensive lineman in that game.
Joining Coleman in the middle could be red-shirt junior Trey Tate. The 270-pounder from Gaffney had 25 tackles a year ago, including a sack of NC State quarterback Phillip Rivers. Competing for playing time in the defensive line also will be junior college transfer Cory Groover, and sophomore Donnell Clark.
Jamison is a 6-7 280-pounder who played 298 snaps at defensive end last year and finished with 27 tackles, including a pair of sacks. He also benefited from a playing time standpoint by Howard’s misfortune. He had at least one tackle in 11 of the 13 games as a reserve last year.
Pressuring Jamison for playing time will be 6-5 Gaines Adams and 6-4 Charles Bennett. Adams, a red-shirt sophomore, had moments of brilliance last year and had 15 total tackles, including four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Bennett made excellent use of the bowl practices and had a break out game against Tennessee. He added two sacks in the spring and is listed as starting defensive end entering the fall. Brandon Cannon is another young defensive end who could see playing time in 2004.
Special Teams Clemson must replace its all-time leading scorer leader in 2003 senior placekicker Justin Miller.
Chason had a modest 38.6 punting average a year ago, but he posted a 36.5 net figure. He had 19 punts inside the 20 and just nine touchbacks. The native of Roswell, GA showed improvement over the course of the season, culminating in a 42-yard average on five punts against Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. He was named Clemson’s Special Teams Player of the Game for that performance.
Aaron Hunt, Clemson’s starting placekicker the last four years. Dean did not attempt a field goal or PAT last season, but showed his leg strength while handling kickoffs. Clemson led the ACC in kickoff return coverage, as 27 of Dean’s 74 kickoffs were touchbacks, the most by a Clemson kicker since 1998. Opponents started at their own 20 or worse 42 of 74 kickoffs for 57 percent, an improvement from 31 percent in 2002. Dean made 42-43 extra points and 9-12 field goals his senior year at Greenwood High in Greenwood, SC.
Clemson led the ACC and ranked second in the nation in kickoff returns last year with a 27.7 figure. Derrick Hamilton, Clemson’s career leader in yardage in that category, has left for the NFL, but Miller does return. The junior has a 29.1 yard average for his career, first in Clemson history on a per return basis. In 2003 he had a punt return for a score, and is one of just two players in Clemson history to have a punt return and a kickoff return for a touchdown over their careers.
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