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2010 Clemson Football Season Outlook

March 5, 2010

The number-one question from the news media for Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney leading up to the 2010 season will be, “How do you replace C.J. Spiller.”

Spiller was a unanimous first-team All-American last year when he gained an ACC record 2,680 all-purpose yards, including 1,212 rushing and 503 receiving. He became the first player in league history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season. He added four kickoff returns for touchdowns and a punt return for a score in the return game, and was the only Division I player to score a touchdown in every game last year. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the first Tiger to win that award in 22 years.

Swinney’s answer is direct. “You can’t replace C.J. Spiller, he was a once in a lifetime player who did so many things for our team. It will take three or four players to do what he did last year for us.”

While Swinney will miss Spiller, whom he personally recruited to Clemson from Lake Butler, FL in 2006, Swinney feels he does have those three or four players needed to provide the yardage, points and leadership Spiller recorded at an unprecedented rate in 2009.

“‘We have outstanding running backs in Jamie Harper. They give you a good one-two punch as far as their different styles of running. Both of those backs can catch the ball out of the backfield, and we have capable return men. We just don’t have one player who can do all the things C.J. did.”

The stats back up Swinney’s optimism to some degree. Ellington and Harper combined for 909 yards in 148 carries last year, an average of 6.2 yards per rush, ahead of Spiller’s 5.6 average per carry.

Another reason for optimism about the 2010 Tigers on offense is the offensive line. The Tigers lose an All-American guard in team leader Thomas Austin, who led the team in knockdown blocks last year and had over 300 for his career, but Clemson does return four starters on the offensive line.

The experience of the offensive line has been the most direct indicator of success for Clemson teams the last 40 years. Since 1965 when college football went to a two-platoon system, Clemson has won an average of nine games per year when it returns at least four offensive line starters from the previous year. You only have to go back to the 2009 season to see that stat at work. Clemson returned four offensive line starters last year, won nine games and finished in the AP top 25.

Leading the offensive line is All-America candidate Chris Hairston, a 6-7, 325-pound tackle who will be in his third year as a starter in 2010. Joining him as returning starters are sophomore center Dalton Freeman, junior tackle Landon Walker, and junior guard Antoine McClain.

Those men provided a solid wall of protection for quarterback Kyle Parker, who threw for 20 touchdowns in his red-shirt freshman year, the fourth highest total in Clemson history, most ever by a Tiger freshman. Also one of the top home run hitters on the Clemson baseball team, Parker tied for the national lead in victories by a freshman starting quarterback last year with nine.

The wide receiver area does not have a returning player who had as many as 15 receptions last year, but that is not a major concern for Swinney, who coached that position from 2003-08 under Tommy Bowden before he became Clemson’s head coach. Clemson must replace Jacoby Ford, who had 56 catches and was the fastest player in college football last year.

“We have good receivers,” said Swinney. “When we get on the field in the fall, someone will emerge as `the guy’. We were in this position in 2004 and Airese Currie led the ACC in receptions. We were in this position going into the 2005 season and Chansi Stuckey made All-ACC and Curtis Baham stepped up and had a great season. Then Aaron Kelly, Tyler Grisham and Jacoby Ford did the same the following year. It is exciting to see new guys emerge.”

The Clemson defense also has some holes to fill. Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler started each of the last 40 games together at cornerback. Ricky Sapp was a four-year player who finished his career with 41 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. And linebacker Kavell Conner was the top tackler each of the last two years and might be regarded as the most underrated defensive player at Clemson in the last decade. He had the third fastest 40-time among linebackers at the NFL Combine last February.

But the Tigers do have returning first-team All-America safety DeAndre McDaniel, who led the ACC in interceptions last year with eight, tying a Clemson record. Like Spiller before him, he rejected an opportunity to turn professional and will return for his senior year.

“DeAndre McDaniel is one of the top defensive players in the nation,” said Swinney. “What he did last year in his first year as a safety was extraordinary. But, he has another level and he made a great decision coming back for his senior year. He will be the leader of the defense.”

Clemson returns three starters and six lettermen across the defensive front, including tackles Jarvis Jenkins and Da’Quan Bowers returns for his junior year as well. He had 58 tackles last year in an injury plagued season and is ready to have a breakout season.

The returning linebackers are led by Brandon Maye, who had 103 tackles last year, third on the team. But, he is the only returning starter at the second line of defense. Kevin Alexander, who also saw time at defensive end, has graduated after a solid senior year that saw him rack up 50 stops.

“I was pleased with the performance of the defense last season. They were more aggressive and you could see that in our sack totals (36, second in the ACC after getting just 14 the previous year) and turnovers forced (30, ranked 15th in the nation).

The Tigers were an overall tougher team in 2009 and that is something that Swinney hopes will carry over into 2010 and beyond. “That was one of our goals going into last year and that will be a goal each year. We saw that at the end of the Kentucky game. We controlled the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter and finished the game by controlling the ball for the last 5:37 of that game. That was the way to finish the season. That epitomized toughness.

“But that is something you want to develop every year. We always aspire to be a smarter team, be a close team and be a tough team. Those are goals we look to achieve every year.

“It all goes back to a daily focus, a daily focus in practice from the start of Spring practice, into the preseason and into the season. That all leads to focus on game day and a consistent execution at a high level.”

In general, Swinney is optimistic about the coming season, if for anything else, Clemson won’t have so many question marks when the season begins. “Last year we had a lot of questions about the program entering the season. We had a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator, two new safeties….and a new head coach. We don’t have as many questions going into this year. “

Offense (7 returning starters, 23 returning lettermen) Balance was the watchword for the Clemson offense in 2009. The Tigers rushed for 2,385 yards and passed for 2,688 yards, just the third Clemson offense in history with at least 2,300 yards of each in the same season.

That will be a key to success for Clemson in 2010 as well. “We always want to keep the opposing defense uncomfortable and you do that with balance,” said Swinney. “We had that last year. We had 24 rushing touchdowns and 23 passing touchdowns. I feel we can do that again in 2010.”

Kyle Parker is the returning starter at quarterback. As a freshman he completed 205 of 369 passes for 2,526 yards and 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Those stats were Clemson freshman records in all categories, breaking marks previously held by Charlie Whitehurst, who just completed his fourth year in the NFL. The yardage total was the fifth best in ACC history by a freshman and his total offense figure was fourth best.

Parker started all 14 games last year and led the Tigers to a 9-5 record, a #24 final ranking and the Atlantic Division championship of the ACC. Only Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley also led his team to nine wins and a top 25 final ranking as a freshman in 2009.

Parker was named a second-team Freshman All-American by College Football News and became the first athlete in Clemson history to be named a freshman All-American in two sports. In 2008 he was named a freshman All-American for the Clemson baseball team.

“Kyle Parker had a terrific freshman season,” said Swinney. “He has a powerful arm and gained a lot of experience last year that should lead to an even better sophomore year. The experience he gained as a baseball player for a top 25 program helped him last year in football.

Parker will continue to play for the Clemson baseball team this spring where he is a starting outfielder on a top 20 team that has a legitimate shot to make the College World Series.

Backing up Parker will be red-shirt freshman Tajh Boyd. The highly regarded athlete from Virginia sat out last year and was ranked among the top 60 players in the nation by coming out of high school. He has a strong arm and impressed Clemson coaches during his work with the scout team last year.

All-around athlete Mike Wade will also be in the mix at quarterback. He also serves as the holder on all placekicks and is a coverage player on the punt and kickoff teams and will see some time at safety on defense. He played nearly 250 special teams plays last year.

The running back position will be led by red-shirt sophomore Jamie Harper. Ellington is the top returning rusher from last year with 491 yards in 68 carries, an average of 7.22 yards per carry. That average was third best in Clemson history and just below the 7.27 average Spiller had his freshman year.

“At times last year when I turned on the film after a game I had to do a double take and make sure it was #23 and not #28,” said Swinney. “He is a very disciplined runner who follows his assignments very well. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield.”

Harper had 418 yards rushing in 80 carries and scored four touchdowns last year. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and showed his speed on a 69-yard touchdown run at NC State, the longest run of the season by a Clemson running back. “Jamie was our top rusher in the bowl win over Kentucky. He made some runs on the last drive that showed his toughness.”

Roderick McDowell, a 5-9 running back from Sumter, SC, will be active in 2010 after red-shirting the 2009 season. He reminds many of Ellington in his running style.

Each of Clemson’s top three receivers from last year have graduated. Ford led the way a year ago with 56 catches for 779 yards and six scores and finished his career in the top 10 in Clemson history in catches, reception yards, all-purpose yards and reception touchdowns. First-team All-ACC Tight end Michael Palmer had 43 catches for 507 yards, school records for the position. Spiller was third with 36 catches for 503 yards.

That means there will be openings at the receiver position for 2010. Senior Xavier Dye is the leading returning pass catcher with 14 receptions for 236 yards and three scores, and is the only returning starter at the position. He actually caught one touchdown pass from Parker, one from Spiller and one from Ford in 2009. His top game was against Florida State when he caught three passes for 68 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown from Parker.

Terrence Ashe looks to move into the starting lineup. Originally a walk-on, the senior had 11 catches for 124 yards last season and has 21 career catches. He is also regarded as one of the top blockers among the Tigers pass catchers.

Brandon Clear and Brandon Ford are returning lettermen who caught passes last season and will be factors in 2010. Bryce McNeal is a red-shirt freshman who will also have every chance to see significant playing time this year.

The tight end position was never more involved in the Clemson offense than it was in 2009 and that should be the plan for the offense coordinated by Billy Napier going forward. Dwayne Allen is the top candidate to lead the tight end position. He is actually a returning starter from last year when he made six starts and appeared in all 14 games. He had 10 catches for 108 yards and three touchdowns. The touchdown total tied a Clemson freshman record for a tight end.

Chad Diehl is one of the most valuable players on the Clemson offense. You won’t find his name prominent in the rushing or receiving stats, but his lead blocking from the fullback and tight end positions had a lot to do with Clemson’s improvement in the rushing attack from 89th in the nation in 2008 to 40th in 2009.

The leader of the offensive line is Chris Hairston, who will be in his third year as starting left tackle. He has started 23 of the 27 games over the last two years and was named second-team All-ACC as a junior. Clemson was 9-3 last year when he was in the starting lineup and 0-2 when he was out due to injury.

Hairston was at his best in Clemson’s 40-37 overtime victory against Miami when he had a season high 85 percent grade and seven knockdown blocks. He finished the year with 46 knockdown blocks and has 106 for his career.

Landon Walker joins Hairston as returning two-year starters at tackle. The son of a former Clemson player, Walker started 12 games last year and has 22 starts over the last two years. He had 33 knockdown blocks last year, including five against TCU when he held TCU first team All-American Jerry Hughes without a sack and limited him to just two tackles. He also graded 82 percent in the win over Miami.

Dalton Freeman is the returning starter at center. The native of Pelion, SC started the last nine games of the season and played 542 snaps in 13 games. The first-team Freshman All-American’s insertion into the starting lineup paralleled Clemson’s offensive resurgence at midseason. The first game he started was against Wake Forest, the school his father had played for. Clemson won that game 38-3 and went on a six-game winning streak that led to the Atlantic Division ACC title.

Junior Antoine McClain is the fourth returning starter on the 2010 offensive line. The native of Alabama started all 14 games last year and had 68 knockdown blocks, second best on the team. He had 12.5 knockdowns against Georgia Tech in the regular season game and 10 more in the ACC title game against the Yellow Jackets, helping the Tigers to at least 30 points in both games.

In many ways, Clemson really has five returning starters in 2010. Mason Cloy started five games last year at center and has 17 starts in his career. But, he suffered a broken leg in the ACC Championship game and missed he bowl game. He should be healthy when practice starts in August. Cloy was a freshman All-American guard in 2008.

Swinney has four other returning lettermen offensive linemen. The list is led by David Smith, who has experience at both guard and tackle in his career and he will see playing time at both positions this spring. The junior has played in 19 games over the last two years and has three starts.

Wilson Norris is a reserve guard who has played 15 games over the last two years, while Ben Ramsey is a veteran reserve center who has played in 15 games over the last three seasons. Sanders will also see some time at center this year. Red-shirt freshman Brandon Thomas will also be a factor on the offensive line in 2010 at tackle. Kalon Davis is a first-year freshman who entered in January and he will get his first action with the Tigers in the Spring.

Defense (6 returning starters, 24 returning lettermen) On paper, the strength of the Clemson defense should be on the front four and in the secondary. The Tigers return three of four starters on the defensive line, two starters in the secondary plus the return of a Freshman All-American, and one starter at linebacker.

The leader of the defense will be safety DeAndre McDaniel, who had perhaps the best all-around season by a Clemson defensive back since College Football Hall of Fame safety Terry Kinard patrolled the secondary in 1982. McDaniel was a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association and a second team selection by five other services as a junior. He is a top candidate for the 2010 Jim Thorpe Award.

The native of Tallahassee, FL led the ACC and ranked third in the nation in interceptions with eight last year, tied for the most in school history. He had 102 tackles to rank fourth on the team and was the only player in college football last year with at least eight interceptions and 100 tackles.

McDaniel was at his best in Clemson’s thrilling win at Miami (FL) when he had two interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown in the Tigers 40-37 overtime victory over the number-eight ranked Hurricanes. He was named National Defensive Back of the Week by the Bednarik Award Committee for that performance.

Joining McDaniel in the starting secondary will be Marcus Gilchrist. The senior had 107 tackles as a starting safety last year, second best on the team. He had four double figure tackle games, including 10 against TCU, who scored a season low 14 points against Clemson’s defense.

Gilchrist may move to a cornerback position this spring, an example of his all-around abilities. He has played cornerback previously in his career and with the play of freshman Kevin Steele make.

Hall had six interceptions and 63 tackles at a safety position last year. He started seven of the 14 games last year when he was named a first-team Freshman All-American. Hall had a streak of four straight games with an interception last year, tied for the longest streak in Clemson history.

Clemson lost perhaps its top cornerback duo in 20 years when Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler graduated after last year. They combined for 20 career interceptions and 85 passes defensed over the last four years. It was not a coincidence that Clemson ranked in the top 20 in the nation in pass defense each of the last four years.

Gilchrist figures to take over one of the cornerback positions, and there are experienced players back to move into the other starting cornerback slot. The leading candidate would appear to be senior Byron Maxwell, one of the top tacklers on the Clemson team. Maxwell had 36 stops last year and added a pair of interceptions as a reserve cornerback. He was also the top special teams tackler on the team with 15.

Other returning lettermen at the cornerback position are Coty Sensabaugh, who had 14 tackles and an interception, and Xavier Brewer, who had 15 stops in 2009.

Other candidates for playing time at safety are Carlton Lewis, who had six stops in nine games last year, Jonathan Meeks, who had six tackles and an interception, two-time letterman Kantrell Brown and Spencer Adams, also a top hurdler on the Clemson track team.

Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson return as starters on the interior defensive line. They are in their third season working together. Jenkins was the top tackler among Clemson defensive linemen last year with 69 stops, including 11 tackles for loss and seven quarterback pressures. Thompson is a real run stopper and had 50 tackles last year in his 13 games as a starter.

Clemson has great depth at the defensive tackle positions. Jamie Cumbie is really a third starter at the tackle position. He had 53 tackles in13 games as a reserve last year, the most tackles by a non-starter last year. The 6-7 lineman had 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks to go with three pass deflections.

Rennie Moore is another experienced tackle who was productive last year. He had 22 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss last season when he played in 13 games. Tyler Shatley is a red-shirt freshman tackle and Josh Watson is a first-year freshman who enrolled at Clemson in January.

Da’Quan Bowers is a returning starter at defensive end. The number-one ranked player in the nation coming out of high school by, Bowers has had some injury problems his first two years. He had 58 tackles in 2009 even though he missed two games completely and played sparingly in three others due to injury. Still he had 11 tackles for loss and three sacks to go with 12 quarterback pressures.

Malliciah Goodman and Andre Branch are two more talented defensive ends who will be key to Clemson’s point prevention unit. Goodman was a freshman All-ACC selection by and had 31 tackles and five tackles for loss as a first-year freshman in 2009. Branch might have been the most improved player on the Clemson defense as he had 46 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.

Brandon Maye is the leader of the Clemson linebacker corps. He had 103 tackles as a sophomore to rank third on the Clemson team. He had seven tackles for loss and three sacks to go with 15 quarterback pressures. Maye also made first-team All- Academic All-ACC in 2009, his sophomore year.

Scotty Cooper is a three-year returning letterman at a linebacker position and will be a candidate for a starting linebacker position. Cooper has starting experience over the last three years and is a veteran of 37 games and six starts. He had 16 tackles last season.

Jonathan Willard and Corico Hawkins are two young linebackers who have been productive in their limited playing time so far. Hawkins had 19 tackles last season, including eight in the win over Coastal Carolina in just 18 snaps. He also had six tackles in the bowl win over Kentucky when Maye was injured. Willard had 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss in his 32 snaps on defense last year. Daniel Andrews is a two-year letter winner with experience at linebacker as well.

Special Teams Clemson returns its starting punter, starting kicker, starting snapper and starting holder. But, Swinney says the special teams might be the area on the team where he has the most questions. “We need to be more consistent in the kicking game this year, that is something we will examine very closely in the Spring and the preseason practices.”

Richard Jackson made 20-31 field goals last year, including eight that were made from at least 40 yards out. He made 6-6 field goals in the win over Boston College to win the Leather Helmet Award as the game’s most valuable player. He was the only player in the nation to make six field goals in a game in 2009. He made three field goals of at least 50 yards, a first in Clemson history in one season.

Matt Skinner returns as the starting snapper. The sophomore from Jacksonville, FL handled every snap in 2009. Mike Wade returns as the holder. Spencer Benton handled the kickoffs last year and did a solid job. Opponents’ average start was just their own 24-yard-line.

Dawson Zimmerman is the returning starter at punter. Zimmerman had a 39.1 average on 55 punts last year and had 19 punts inside the 20. He had a solid individual net figure of 36 yards per punt.

Clemson had one of the most dynamic return games in the nation last year thanks to the performance of Spiller and Ford who had two of the top 40 times at the NFL Combine last February. The Tigers ranked in the top 10 in the nation in kickoff returns and top 20 in punt returns and Clemson had an average starting field position advantage of 13 yards in 2009 after kickoffs.

Clemson does have a couple of returning players who have experience in the return game. Marcus Gilchrist are two veteran players will experience in the return game, but a freshman could also move into that area.