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2006 Football Outlook

2006 Football Outlook

March 6, 2006

Clemson’s victory over Colorado in the 2005 Champs Sports Bowl signaled the end of an era in Tiger football history. On that night in Orlando, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst led the Tigers to victory for the 25th time, the second most victories for a starting quarterback in Clemson history.

Over his career, Whitehurst established 46 school records, including standards for passing yards, pass completions, total offense and touchdown passes. Few felt anyone would eclipse the records Woodrow Dantzler established under Head Coach Tommy Bowden from 1999-01, but five years later, most of Dantzler’s standards have been erased from the Clemson press guide by Whitehurst.

In addition to the records he established, Whitehurst will be remembered for his leadership, guiding the Tigers to seven victories over top 25 teams, including a memorable 26-10 win over third ranked Florida State in 2003, the highest ranked team Clemson has defeated in school history, and a win over a sixth ranked Tennessee team to end that season at the Peach Bowl. Diehard Clemson fans will remember one stat about Whitehurst: Four straight wins over rival South Carolina, the only quarterback in the history of the series for either team to quarterback four victories.

The Tigers also must replace starting wide receiver Curtis Baham, the team’s third best receiver with 32 catches for 500 yards, plus starting tight ends Bobby Williamson and Cole Downer, both fine blockers who contributed to Clemson’s improved running game.

Those same loyal Clemson fans will also be the first to tell you that Clemson will miss more than just the passing arm and leadership of Whitehurst. Clemson loses seven of its 22 position starters from last year’s 8-4 team that finished the season with six wins in the last seven games and a #21 final ranking in both polls.

In fact, the four lost starters on defense might be more pivotal because it was the Tiger defense that had the higher national rankings at season’s end. Clemson ranked in the final top 25 in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense a year ago and the play of 2005 seniors Tye Hill, Charles Bennett, Trey Tate and Jamaal Fudge had a lot to do with those fine stats.

Hill will likely be a first-round draft choice as a cornerback, especially after a 4.3 40-yard time at the NFL Combine on February 28th. He was a second-team AP All-American when he was one of the top shutdown corners in the nation. Fudge was a perfect complimentary safety to Hill’s style of play, as the three-year starter registered 74 tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. It was Fudge who became the first defender in Clemson history to lead the Tigers or share the lead in interceptions three consecutive years and he finished his career with 12 career takeaways, among the top 10 figures in Clemson history.

Bennett had 53 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss, including a team best eight tackles and three tackles for loss in the bowl victory, a big reason Colorado gained just 124 yards of total offense, the best total defense figure of all 56 teams in bowl competition.

“We lost some outstanding seniors on both sides of the ball,” said Bowden, who is entering his eighth season at the helm of the Clemson program. “It will seem strange to look out on the field and not see #6 (Whitehurst) under center. His ability to absorb Rob Spence’s offense so swiftly had a lot to do with our success last year.

“We will also miss the 2005 seniors on defense. It is so important in today’s passing offense to have outstanding players in the secondary. Tye Hill and Jamaal Fudge were both three-year starters who played over 2000 career snaps. You don’t replace experience like that overnight.”

While Clemson’s losses due to graduation are significant, the Tigers do return 15 starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, plus both starting kickers. Overall, there are 48 returning lettermen on the roster. Clemson has the ACC’s top returning pass receiver (Chansi Stuckey), the #2 returning rusher (James Davis), the top returning scorer (Jad Dean), the top returnee in tackles (Anthony Waters) and the top returnee in terms of quarterback sacks (Gaines Adams).

On offense, Clemson does have three players returning who accounted for at least 700 yards rushing or receiving, a first in Clemson history. Chansi Stuckey led the ACC in receptions with 64 for 770 yards and four scores, while Aaron Kelly added 47 catches for 575 yards in a productive red-shirt freshman year, the second most productive freshman receiving season in Clemson history.

The offensive line returns all five starters, a first for the Tigers since the 2000 season. That is usually a good sign for the Clemson program. The last four seasons Clemson has had all five starters returning in the offense line, Clemson’s combined record has been 39-9, including the 12-0 season of 1981 when Clemson won the National Championship. Clemson will celebrate the 25th anniversary of that accomplishment this year when the Tigers play host to North Carolina on September 23.

Guiding the offense will be signal caller Will Proctor. The backup to Whitehurst each of the last two years. Proctor will have one shot (year) to make his mark on Tiger football. He showed his capabilities in leading Clemson to a victory over Duke near the end of the 2005 season.

“Our biggest question on the team is the most important position,” said Bowden. “Among the offensive starters he has the least amount of experience (99 career snaps under center). But, he has sat in on all those meetings for four years and he is a student of the game.

“He had two tests last year, the fourth quarter of the Texas A&M game and the Duke game when he started. He passed both of those tests. So, he has more experience than some first year starters.”

The Tiger defense allowed just 17.6 points per game last year, 11th best in the nation. If Clemson is to duplicate its ranking in that important statistic it must have continued outstanding play from senior leaders Anthony Waters. Both considered turning professional after the 2005 season, but much to the glee of Tiger fans and the coaching staff, they decided to return to Tigertown to earn an undergraduate degree and help the Tiger football team to a successful season.

Other key returnees on defense include senior linebacker Tramaine Billie, junior linebacker Nick Watkins, CAT safety C.J. Gaddis (who will move to cornerback in the spring) and senior defensive tackle Donnell Clark. A group of sophomores who were named to various Freshman All-America teams will also have a big role in 2006. Michael Hamilin, who started the last seven games of the year (six victories), will continue to have a major impact on the Clemson pass defense as a safety. Young defensive tackles Rashaad Jackson, Phillip Merling, Jock McKissic and Dorell Scott also will be important young players.

“You win games with strong play on the offensive line, but you win championships with strong play on the defensive line. The play of the freshmen defensive linemen will be important for us. They made great improvement over the course of the season and they had a lot to do with our six wins in the last seven games.”

Clemson played 22 freshmen on scrimmage plays in 2005, including 16 who played at least 100 snaps. “One of the reasons we finished strong in 2005 was the maturity of the first-year freshmen and the red-shirt freshmen. We hope we don’t have to play as many young players this coming year, but we do have a talented group coming in and a talented group who red-shirted last year. It should make for a competitive situation, which only makes you better.”

Offense (8 Returning Starters, 21 Returning Lettermen) As stated above, Clemson has some productive running backs and receivers returning to lead the Tiger offense in 2006. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence’s likes the balanced approach and that was apparent in his first year at the offensive helm when Clemson was the only team in the ACC to rank in the top four in the league in both rushing offense and passing offense. In fact, Clemson tied for the league lead in total offense with Miami (FL) in conference games. (That’s right both teams had the exact same total to the last yard.)

James Davis had an outstanding rookie season with a team best 93.7 all-purpose yards per game. He had 879 rushing (second most by a Clemson freshman) and 152 receiving on the way to nine touchdowns. He is the number-two ranked returning rusher in the ACC, and he probably would be number-one ranked had he not suffered a broken wrist at mid-season, an injury that forced him to miss one complete game and all but one play in another.

James Davis

Davis averaged 5.3 yards per rush in demonstrating an ability to break to the outside, or pick up the tough yards on the inside. That was apparent from the very first game of the year when he carried the ball eight consecutive times for 33 yards on the Tigers final drive to a game-winning field goal in the season opener against Texas A&M, a 25-24 Tiger victory. He concluded the season with 145 yards rushing in the victory at South Carolina and a season high 150 yards on the ground in the victory over Colorado in the Champs Sports Bowl. That was against a Colorado defense that had not allowed an opposing running back to gain over 75 yards in a game all year.

Equally effective on the ground is senior Reggie Merriweather, who is ranked among the top active rushers in the ACC with nearly 1441 career yards and 18 touchdowns. Merriweather had three consecutive 100-yard rushing games at midseason, including a career high 128 yards against Georgia Tech’s top 20 rushing defense. Merriweather has the ability to make the clutch play, as he has scored the game winner in overtime or the last two minutes of a game three times in the last two years.

Demarick Chancellor is a red-shirt freshman running back from Florida who also figures to see time in the backfield this spring.

Clemson has the top returning receiver in the ACC, as Chansi Stuckey returns for his senior season. It marks the first time since 1981 (Perry Tuttle) that Clemson has had a returning player who led the ACC in receptions the previous year. Stuckey averaged 5.33 receptions per game last year, fourth best in Clemson history for a season. He had a breakout performance in the win over Florida State when he had 11-156 and two scores to help Whitehurst have a memorable Senior Day victory. Stuckey has had at least one reception in all 20 games he has played at wide receiver in his Clemson career. He also serves as Clemson’s top punt returner and scored Clemson’s only touchdown of the game on a punt return in the season opener against Texas A&M.

Like Stuckey, Kelly had at least two catches in every game a year ago, including 7-155 against Temple. That was the third highest reception yardage game by an ACC player last year. His 47 catches ranked second best in Clemson history by a Tiger freshman, trailing only the 53 caught by Derrick Hamilton in 2001.

Tyler Grisham and Rendrick Taylor are two sophomore receivers who will see more and more time in the offense. Grisham saw significant action in the Champs Sports Bowl win over Colorado when Stuckey suffered a first-half concussion. He finished the year with 10 catches for 101 yards. Taylor, a strong 6-2, 220-pound athlete, had 9-69 in a rookie year that was limited by an arm injury. La’Donte Harris is a junior who had 6-52 including a touchdown reception from Proctor against Duke.

Proctor will try to duplicate the performance of former Tiger quarterbacks Charlie Bussey (1956), Billy Lott (1979) and Chris Morocco (1989). All three of those signal callers served as reserve quarterbacks until their respective senior years, then took the Tigers to a bowl game in their lone year as a starter.

“We have confidence in Charlie Whitehurst, but with his quickness as a runner, he might be better suited to run this offense. He has been waiting his turn for a long time and is anxious to take over the position. He had a very efficient performance in the victory over Duke last year.”

With Whitehurst suffering from an arm injury, Proctor got the start against Duke last year and connected on 13-21 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. His passing efficiency rating for the season was 166.1, ahead of Whitehurst’s 133.5 figure.

Chansi Stuckey

One of the biggest reasons for optimism about the Clemson team for 2006 is the return of all five starting offensive linemen, and nine of the top 10 players who are customary to offensive trench warfare. Chip Myrick, a starter in five of the 12 games who played over 300 snaps, was the only senior of the group.

It is difficult to single out one player as the leader of Brad Scott’s group, because all five returning starters had their moments a year ago. In fact over the 12 games, five different offensive linemen had the top film grade in games according to Brad Scott’s grading system.

Roman Fry earned second-team All-ACC honors last year and might be the most versatile linemen in the ACC. He saw time at center, guard and tackle over the course of the year, but most of his snaps were recorded at guard. The senior from Ironton, OH did not consistently enter the starting lineup until midseason, so it was quite an accomplishment for him to make an All-ACC team at season’s end.

Fry finished the year with a team best 98.5 knockdown blocks, including the team high in each of the last seven games. He had 18 in the win over Florida State, the high figure by a Clemson player in a game in four years. He concluded the season with a team best 88 percent grade and a team best 10 knockdown blocks in the win over Colorado.

Rob Spence’s intricate offense. Dustin was third on the team in knockdown blocks with 72.5, including 16 intimidation blocks. He had a team best 94 percent grade in the win over South Carolina, one of his team best three grades in the 90s in 2005.

Nathan Bennett has the most experience among the starting offensive linemen. A veteran of 30 starts over the last three years, Bennett is among the most physical linemen in the ACC. He had at least eight knockdown blocks in each of his last three games, including eight to go with a season high 86 percent grade in the win over Colorado. Bennett finished the year with 74.5 knockdown blocks, second best on the team.

Barry Richardson are the starting tackles who are both in their third season as starters. Dukes, a first-year senior, had five games in which he graded in the 80s, including a team best 84 percent against Miami (FL) outstanding defensive line. Richardson was the ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against NC State when he allowed first-round draft choice Mario Williams just one tackle and no sacks in Clemson’s 30-10 victory. He had at least an 84 percent grade in each of the last three games and had a career high 11.5 knockdown blocks in the win over Florida State.

There are four returning lettermen with experience, plus five red-shirt freshmen who will likely see some playing time in 2006 and in the future. Brandon Pilgrim started four games at offensive guard in 2005 and had 39 knockdown blocks, more than any reserve in a number of years. He is a red-shirt junior who will see plenty of action and push for a starting berth.

Chris McDuffie made the move to offensive guard last year and he spent the first half of the year learning the position. But he made progress over the course of the year and is ready to make a significant contribution this year.

Dustin Fry, lessons that will pay off down the road. Thomas Austin (OG), Barry Humphries (C), Taylor Tremel (OG), Quentez Ruffin (OT) and Cory Lambert (OT) are five talented linemen who red-shirted last year as freshmen.

The tight end position is very important in Clemson’s offense. Players who played the position last year caught 24 passes last year, most by the tight end position in 30 years. Thomas Hunter is the top returnee after starting six of the 12 games a year ago. He had 13 receptions for 130 yards last year, including a career high tying three receptions in the Champs Sports Bowl against Colorado. Zack Green and Durrell Barry and Paul Muse are red-shirt freshmen who figure to see action.

Defense (7 Returning Starters, 23 Returning Lettermen) When Tommy Bowden took over as Clemson Head Coach in 1999 he said his program would challenge for championships when his team was dominant on defense. His Tigers are making moves towards a dominant defense based on the performance on the field over the last seven games of the 2005 season.

Bowden’s 2005 point prevention unit allowed just 287.1 yards per game, including just 93 per game on the ground, and 11.4 points per game over the last seven games of the season. The Tigers won six of the seven contests, including a dominating performance against Florida State and Colorado, the first time since 1991 that Clemson won six of the last seven contests.

Bowden has seven starters and 23 lettermen returning from his 2005 defense, including a pair of starters who could have turned professional, but decided to return to Clemson to finish what they had started four years ago. Overall, each of the top three tacklers and six of the top seven in terms of total tackles return in 2006.

Middle linebacker Anthony Waters returns for his third season as the starting inside linebacker. The ACC’s third best tackler in 2005 with 109 tackles, he is the top returning tackler in the ACC for 2006. Waters moved into a team leadership area last year as a junior when he had 13.5 tackles for loss and seven passes broken up.

Anthony Waters

He had a breakout game against Maryland and All-America linebacker D’Quell Jackson. Jackson ended the year as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, but Waters might have won the head-to-head battle back in the second game of the year when he had 14 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss. It was the third most tackles for loss in a single game in Clemson history. The Tigers won the game 28-24. Waters enters his senior year with 214 career tackles, more than any other active Tiger.

“Anthony Waters and Gaines Adams both tested the NFL market and separately made the decision to return to Clemson,” said Bowden. “It was a good decision for both of them because they can improve their stock with the NFL with another outstanding year. They just have to go out and perform on the field.”

Adams is ranked as the top rising senior defensive end for the 2007 NFL draft according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper. Clemson’s improvement over the second half of the season paralleled Adams stat sheet stuffing over the last half of the year. Adams had 29 quarterback pressures, 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to lead Clemson in all three areas. His nine passes broken up set a record for a Clemson defensive lineman. Over the last six games, he had 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 16 quarterback pressures.

The senior from Greenwood, SC, who played eight-man football in high school, has improved by significant chunks in every major category since he has been at Clemson. He posted 15 tackles as a freshman, 35 as a sophomore, and 56 as a junior. His sack total has gone from one to five to 9.5 over his career.

Waters and Adams are the leaders of the Clemson defense, but there are many other outstanding athletes who were major reasons Clemson ranked in the top 25 in the nation in the four major statistical categories for the first time since 1995.

Helping Adams in the first line of defense will be returning starter Donnell Clark at defensive tackle, plus four precocious freshmen. Clark started six of the first seven games, then suffered a torn ACL against Temple that cost him the rest of the season. He had 11 tackles, including four tackles for loss before the injury and he hopes to be 100 percent ready for the season in August.

Gaines Adams

Clemson had three different defensive players named to at least one freshman All-America team last year and two of those players are defensive linemen. Rashaad Jackson had the best numbers and looks to be a starter at defensive tackle. Even though he started just one game and played just 25 snaps per game, Jackson had 39 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss to lead all Clemson defensive tackles and nose guards in both areas. He showed the most consistency among the group and had exactly five tackles in each of the last three games.

Dorell Scott will be in strong competition with Jackson for playing time at tackle. Scott was one of just three Tigers to average at least one quarterback pressure per game last year when he had 18 tackles and 10 pressures in just nine games. He showed his capabilities when he had two fumble recoveries and six tackles in the win over Temple.

Jock McKissic played in all 12 games for 249 snaps at nose guard last year and was a big reason Clemson ranked in the top 20 in the nation in rushing defense. He had 18 tackles during the season and figures to be more effective with another year in the weightroom. Etta Etta-Tawo is a red-shirt freshman who will also see plenty of time this year.

Charles Bennett. Merling was a second-team freshman All-American last year when he had 22 tackles, including four tackles for loss and two sacks. Brandon Cannon, who had two sacks in the win over Florida State, and Elsmore Gabriel, a red-shirt lineman from New York, also will be in the mix at defensive end.

Clemson returns all three starters at the linebacker positions, including the aforementioned Waters. Tramaine Billie returns at the strongside position. The three returning starters at linebacker combined for 301 tackles in 2005. No returning linebacker trio in the ACC for 2006 had more tackles in 2005.

Watkins, a junior with strength and quickness, had 99 tackles to rank second on the team behind Waters. He led the team in tackles three times, including the win over Colorado to close the season. Billie is a former safety who also has speed and strength. The native of Columbia, SC had 93 tackles last year, including 12 in the win over South Carolina.

The backups at linebacker include two players who are making minor position changes. Antonio Clay, a first-year sophomore, has moved from middle linebacker to strong side, where he will compete with Billie. Clay had 27 tackles for the year, including a team best nine stops in the win over Temple. Cortney Vincent made the move from bandit end to middle linebacker for this spring. Vincent had six tackles a year ago. Josh Miller is a third young player who will see action as he is listed second team behind Watkins. Miller had 13 tackles last year, including six on special teams.

The secondary must replace Tye Hill and Jamaal Fudge and those are major holes to be filled. Two former offensive players look to hold down the two cornerback positions. Duane Coleman is the starter at the boundary corner, a position he is still learning. Coleman made the move from tailback to cornerback in the middle of last year and was the starter for the last three games of the season. He had 21 of his 35 tackles in the last three games and showed a toughness that helps him carry out his duties. He needs only 15 tackles to become the first Clemson player on record to have 50 receptions and 50 tackles in a career.

C.J. Gaddis came to Clemson as a quarterback, but moved to the secondary prior to the 2004 season. He started five games as the CAT Safety in 2005 and had 55 tackles to rank fifth on the team. He had a three-game streak of double figure tackle games early in the season, and had a three-game streak with an interception late in the year.

“We have as much depth in terms of young talented players at cornerback as I have had at Clemson,” said Bowden. “They do lack a lot of experience, but there are some young players who will compete with the older players and that competition will be good for the team.”

Haydrian Lewis and Sergia Gilliam are currently listed as the backup cornerbacks. Gilliam is actually a returning starter as he started the first nine games a year ago and had 37 tackles and four pass deflections. Lewis played in all 12 games for 11 snaps per game and made six tackles. Bowden is excited to see what the athletic Ray Ray McElrathbey and Chris Chancellor can do this spring at the cornerback positions.

Michael Hamlin was a third defensive player to earn Freshman All-America honors last year. The safety had 55 tackles to rank seventh on the team. He started the last seven games of the year, including the key Thursday night victory at NC State when he had a season high eight tackles. Hamlin had 36 tackles, two passes intercepted and two more broken up over the last seven games.

Chris Clemons, who played at safety and cornerback as a red-shirt freshman, is the starter at the CAT safety position entering the spring. He had 33 tackles, including 10 on special teams, last season. Brandon Croley and Sadat Chambers will backup Hamlin at safety, while Roy Walker and Colorado transfer Chris Russell will challenge Clemons.

Special Teams Clemson returns both the starting punter and placekicker for 2006. In fact, kicker Jad Dean and punter Cole Chason have been the starters each of the last two years.

Dean set a Clemson record for field goals in a season with 24 and he was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, Clemson’s first finalist for that position award. He scored 106 points for the season, just two points shy of 2005 Super Bowl Champion Chris Gardocki’s record total in 1988.

Jad Dean

Dean made 24-31 field goals and 34-35 extra points during his junior year. He started the year with a 6-6 field goal performance against Texas A&M, a Clemson record for field goals in a game. That included a game-winning 42-yarder with just two seconds left.

Chason has been the starter each of the last three years, but struggled at times last year and finished the season with a 36.4 average. He did have 13 punts inside the 20 against just one touchback. But, he did have five punts blocked last year and Bowden will use a different punting formation in 2006. Chason also provides the valuable service as the holder on all placekicks. His hold for Dean on the game winning field goal against Texas A&M was one of the best plays under pressure by a Tiger all season.

Chansi Stuckey leads the returnees in the return game. He finished seventh in the ACC in punt returns with a 7.4 average. He scored the only Clemson offensive touchdown on a 47-yard punt return against Texas A&M. Aaron Kelly did not become a factor on the kickoff return game until midseason, but he had a 26.6 yard average on 10 returns to pace the team.