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Clemson Football Outlook 2005

Clemson Football Outlook 2005

March 10, 2005

For the second consecutive year, the Clemson football program enters a season hoping it can pick up where it left off the previous season. The 2004 Tigers started off 1-4, but won five of their last six games to post a winning ledger and become bowl eligible for the sixth straight year. It was the first time since 1963 that Clemson started 1-4 or worse and ended the season with a winning record.

But, to turn that momentum into a successful September of 2005 and beyond will be a challenge as the Tigers have their most difficult opening month slate in nearly 40 years. Clemson opens the season with Texas A&M, a bowl team in 2004 that defeated Clemson by three touchdowns in College Station. Clemson must then travel to Maryland before home games with Miami (FL) and Boston College to finish the month. Miami (FL) has won at least nine games six years in a row and Boston College, in its first year in the ACC, is the only school in the nation to win a bowl game five consecutive years. In November, Florida State will also come to Clemson.

“This will certainly be one of the most difficult schedules in Clemson history and might be the most difficult home schedule in history,” said Head Coach Tommy Bowden, who has led Clemson to 28 ACC wins in the last six years, second only to Florida State. “The demand for tickets to our home games will be at an all-time high this year. It is a most attractive schedule and I know our players are excited about the prospect of playing so many nationally renowned programs at home.”

Getting off to a good start in 2005 will also be a challenge because of the loss of eight starters from last year’s team who were keys to the second half run. Clemson must replace five starters on defense, including ACC Defensive Player of the Year LeRoy Hill, second leading tackler Travis Pugh, and defensive back Justin Miller, who is slated to be a high choice in the April NFL draft. Defensive linemen Mo Fountain and Eric Coleman were sound statistically, but might have been most important when it came to team leadership.

“We don’t lose a lot of players on defense, but they were of high quality as players and team leaders,” said Bowden. “LeRoy Hill was the top defensive player in the ACC last year and was among the national leaders in making big plays (tackles for loss and sacks). Justin Miller got better and better as the year went on and will be a difficult player to replace in the secondary and as a kick returner. Travis Pugh was our second leading tackler and was a big reason we finished 12th in the nation in passing efficiency defense. Eric Coleman had an All-ACC season, especially the second half, and Mo Fountain was just a consistent player day in and day out.”

The offense must overcome the loss of the ACC’s leading receiver, Airese Currie, who had more than twice as many catches and yards as any other Clemson player last year. Additionally, Bowden must replace offensive line starters Cedric Johnson and Tommy Sharpe and tight end Ben Hall. All three were regulars the last three years.

“Airese Currie led the ACC in receiving and that is saying something,” said Bowden. “He showed what he could do if he remained healthy for a complete season. We also must replace three outstanding offensive linemen in Cedric Johnson, Tommy Sharpe and Ben Hall.”

Clemson also will have to get off to a strong start in September by quickly adapting to new terminology if not a new offense and defense. Bowden has selected two new coordinators for the 2005 season. Rob Spence, who guided Toledo’s potent attacks in recent years, will coordinate the offensive, while Vic Koenning, the leader of Troy’s outstanding defense in recent seasons, will coordinator Clemson’s defensive efforts.

“Our formations won’t be much different on either side of the ball,” said Bowden. “We will be spending a lot of time learning terminology and it might effect how much time we spend in meetings vs. practice in the spring. Offensively we will still be no-huddle with four wide receivers much of the time. We will use one back and two back sets. Defensively there will be some changes. We might be more odd than even for some opponents, but overall there won’t be that many changes in alignment.”

Offense (7 returning starters, 20 returning lettermen) Clemson returns seven starters on offense, including quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who already has 29 starts under his belt, 18 of which have resulted in Clemson victories. The 6-5 graduate student became the first player in ACC history to defeat nine different league schools, and he will have a chance to make it 10 when Boston College visits Clemson in 2005. He is tied for eighth in Clemson history in victories for a starting quarterback, including wins over top 10 teams from Florida State, Tennessee and Miami (FL). He is just the second quarterback in Clemson history to own three wins over top 10 teams.

While Whitehurst will be a fourth-year starter, he will have some learning to do this spring and August as he learns a new set of terms under offensive coordinator Rob Spence. Spence must be a good teacher, however, as he has a good track record in his previous stops with a quarterback in the first year of his system. His Toledo team gained over 3000 yards passing and 2000 yards rushing last year.

“I look for Charlie to have an outstanding final year,” said Bowden. “There is not that big a difference between the schemes we have run here since Charlie has been at Clemson and what Rob does. Quarterbacks have had a high completion percentage under Coach Spence and I would look for Charlie to make an improvement in that area and his efficiency…and that will hopefully translate into more production for our offense and victories.”

Whitehurst holds over 30 Clemson records, including career passing yardage (7182), completions (588) and 200-yard (18) and 300-yard (5) passing games. He is second in percentage and touchdown passes. He threw for 2067 yards on 177-349 passing as a junior when he threw seven touchdown passes. As a sophomore he completed 62 percent of his passes for 3561 yards and 21 scores when he led Clemson to a 9-4 record and a #22 final national ranking in both polls.

The native of Georgia has had many big games in his Clemson career, not the least of which was a 258-yard passing effort in Clemson’s win at Miami (FL) in overtime. He also has a perfect 3-0 record against South Carolina, tying the school record for wins over Clemson’s in-state rival. He will have a chance to be the first 4-0 Tiger signal caller against the Gamecocks when Clemson travels to Columbia in November.

Whitehurst will have three scholarship quarterbacks fighting for the backup spot. Junior Will Proctor is the only one of the three to play in a game and he has attempted just three passes in his eight games played over the last two years. Tribble Reese and Cullen Harper are a pair of freshmen who red-shirted last season.

Clemson returns its top two rushers from 2004 in Reggie Merriweather and Duane Coleman. Merriweather had 670 yards in 135 carries last year for nearly a 5.0 average. He scored 11 of Clemson’s 15 rushing touchdowns and ranked fifth in the ACC in scoring. No one would have thought the 5-9 sophomore would have been Clemson’s top rusher at midseason because he had just 162 yards through the first five games, including two games when he didn’t gain a yard.

But, Merriweather averaged 85 yards a game over the last six games of the season, including 100-yard efforts in Clemson wins over Miami (FL) and South Carolina. He scored three touchdowns in each of those games. He scored seven of his 11 touchdowns in the last three games.

Coleman, Clemson’s top rusher in 2003, was second on the team in rushing with 284 yards on 93 attempts and he scored one touchdown last year. He is also Clemson’s top receiver out of the backfield with 49 career receptions, including 34 in 2003. The native of Florida had an injury plagued season in which he missed two completed games and parts of two others. He had 77 all-purpose yards in the win over South Carolina and will be a factor in all phases of Clemson’s offense in 2005.

Kyle Browning is a third returning letterman at the running back position. The 5-7 senior from Spartanburg has always been productive when given the chance. He played in all 11 games last year and averaged 7.5 yards per carry for his 14 rushes and has a 5.7 average for his 48 career carries. He scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Wake Forest in 2004 and had a clinching touchdown on a “panther play” in the win over Tennessee in the 2003 Peach Bowl.

Clemson has two strong fullbacks to help the Tiger ground attack. Cliff Harrell and Steven Jackson don’t have the opportunity to carry the ball often, but they are important components of the Clemson offense, especially when it comes to short yardage situations. Harrell is a veteran of 36 games in three years, including eight starts, while Jackson, a transfer from East Tennessee State after the Bucs dropped football after the 2002 season, is one of the top special teams players on the team in addition to his contributions from the fullback position.

Clemson has four of its top five receivers returning, but the Tigers must replace ACC reception leader Airese Currie, who had 61 catches for 869 yards, the top figure in the ACC in both categories. The first Clemson player to lead the ACC in receiving in 24 years, Currie finished his career as one of six players in Clemson history with over 2000 receiving yards.

Clemson does have two returning starters at the wide receiver position, plus a third who has the potential to be the team’s top pass catcher. Chansi Stuckey, a 6-0 junior from Warner Robbins, GA, was second to Currie last year with 25 catches for 280 yards. But, Stuckey had an injury plagued season. He had his best performances in the first game and the last game, as he had 8-112 receiving in the opening win over Wake Forest and 7-74 to lead the Tigers in the season finale over South Carolina. He had just 10 receptions in the nine games in between.

“I am anxious to see what Chansi Stuckey can do when he is healthy for a complete season,” said Bowden. “He was very elusive when he was at full strength last year. He will also help us as a kick returner. As a junior Chansi is also one of the most respected players on the team.”

Kelvin Grant had 23-274 receiving to rank third on the Clemson team last year. The 6-3 wideout, who was a high school All-American, caught a game-tying two-point conversion that was key to the win over Wake Forest, and had a season high seven catches at Texas A&M. Curtis Baham has been a solid possession receiver the last two seasons. The native of New Orleans had 16 catches for 188 yards last season, including a season high 4-56 at Miami.

There will be plenty of opportunity for wide receivers to see playing time in Clemson’s 2005 offense that will feature a four-wide-receiver set for much of the time. La’Donte Harris was the only first year freshman on offense who played in any scrimmage plays last year and he will be counted on to step up this year. Aaron Kelly is a 6-4 freshman who red-shirted last year and appears to be ready for action. Chris Jefferson is a 6-2 sophomore and Andrew Diomande is a 6-1 freshman who will see playing time this year.

The tight end position will be manned by the talented Bobby Williamson. Clemson’s starting tight end in 2003, he moved to defensive end last year. As a second team player, Williamson recorded 30 tackles, including seven tackles for loss, five of which were sacks. Now, with the graduation of Ben Hall and the propensity to throw to the tight end in Rob Spence’s offense, Williams has moved back to tight end. Cole Downer, who has played guard in addition to tight end in his Clemson career, Zach Green, and Thomas Hunter, are also slated to see playing time at tight end for the Tigers in 2005.

Clemson has three returning starters at the five interior offensive line positions. The Tigers must replace Cedric Johnson, a starter at offensive guard each of the last three seasons, and center Tommy Sharpe, an Academic All-ACC player who has been Whitehurst’s starting center in all but one of his 29 starts.

Despite those losses, Clemson should be improved in the offensive line, especially in the running game where Clemson ranked 100th in the nation in rushing last year with just 107 yards per game. In addition to returning both starters at tackle and one guard, the return of a healthy Chip Myrick and red-shirted guard Brandon Pilgrim should lead to a resurgence of the Tiger ground attack.

“We certainly need to improve in the running game,” said Bowden. “We will miss Johnson and Sharpe, but our two tackles are talented and will only get better with experience. Barry Richardson was a consensus first-team freshman All-American who has great footwork for his level of experience and Marion Dukes is becoming a well rounded tackle at 315 pounds. Chip Myrick at full strength from day one in August will make a difference.”

Richardson graduated from high school a year early and was slated to be red-shirted when he came to campus in August of 2004. But the 6-7, 350-pounder showed promise in preseason camp and was in the starting lineup by the fourth game of the season. He started eight games in the offensive line by season end, more than any other first-year freshman offensive lineman in Clemson history.

Dukes, like Richardson, a rare case of an offensive lineman who did not red-shirt, started every game last year at right tackle and had an average film grade of over 80 percent. Tim DeBeer is a two-year letterman who will backup Richardson and Christian Capote is a red-shirt sophomore slated to backup Dukes.

Bennett has started each of the last two years at guard and finished third on the club in knockdown blocks last year. Myrick is expected to start on the opposite guard. A starter much of 2003, he contracted mononucleosis in August and never seemed to reach full strength the entire season. The 290-pounder is anxious to make a fresh start in 2005, his final season.

The center position will be held by the non-related Frys. Dustin Fry played the position for over 100 plays as Sharpe’s backup last year. He even has a start at the position (2003 at NC State), and has the size(6-4, 315 pounds) to be the anchor of the Tiger line for the next two years. He will have competition from Roman Fry, a 295-pounder from Ohio who will be playing his first year at center. He has lettered the last two years as a guard and tackle and might be the most versatile offensive lineman on the Clemson team.

Defense (6 returning starters, 22 returning lettermen) Clemson fans have fond memories of the “Bandit” end position. It was a term used for a well-rounded defensive end by Tom Harper, the defensive coordinator of Clemson’s 1981 National Championship team. Andy Headen was a 6-5, 245-pound converted quarterback who played the position, helping Clemson to a perfect 12-0 season with his all-around talents.

New coordinator Vic Koenning uses that moniker when designating one of his front line positions in his defense. “The Bandit end will be a player who might rush one play, or drop back in coverage another,” said Bowden. “It will be an important position that takes a special athlete.”

The leading candidate to move into that position is Gaines Adams, who is almost identical to Headen’s 6-5 and 245-pound stature. Adams has earned two letters as a productive backup, recording six sacks, 12 quarterback pressures and six passes broken up in his 23 games at defensive end. He also had two blocked punts on special teams last year.

Cortney Vincent, who earned rave reviews from Clemson coaches last year as he went through his red-shirt freshman year, and Elsmore Gabriel, a first-year freshman who enrolled at Clemson in January of 2005 are also fine athletes who will see playing time at Bandit. They will help the Tiger defensive effort attempt to improve from its #28 total defense ranking in 2004.

Charles Bennett will lineup at the other defensive end position and he has a chance to be one of the top players in the ACC at his position. The senior had 48 tackles last year, including 14 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2004 when he started every game. His tackle for loss total was the best among Clemson defensive linemen, as was his 11 quarterback pressures. His biggest play of the 2004 season, however, was an interception. He picked off a Wolfpack pass on the last play of the game on the goal line to clinch the Tigers 26-20 victory.

Brandon Cannon, Kwam Williams and Akeem Robinson will battle for playing time behind Bennett. Cannon lettered in 2004, while Williams is an ever improving 255-pound sophomore. Robinson is a gifted athlete from Florida who played on the offensive line most of last year when he red-shirted, but will play on the defensive line this year.

Clemson must replace Eric Coleman at defensive tackle. The Tigers return Trey Tate, a red-shirt senior who has earned three letters. In 2004, his first year as a starter, Tate had 34 tackles, including two sacks and three tackles for loss. Cory Groover is the top candidate to replace Coleman. The junior college transfer who had 27 tackles as a backup last year, will lineup at the nose guard position at 6-3 and 280 pounds.

The three linebacker positions returns a pair of starters and seven lettermen, but that doesn’t mean Clemson doesn’t have a hole to fill. LeRoy Hill was Clemson’s top tackler last year with 106, including 19 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He led Clemson in all three areas and ranked among the top five in the ACC in all three areas.

The leader of the linebacker corps should be returning starter Anthony Waters. The 6-3, 235-pounder was third on the team in tackles last year and will be the top returning tackler for 2005. Waters had 70 tackles in starting all 11 games, including nine tackles for loss. His top game of the year came at Miami when he had eight tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack.

Lionel Richardson and Roosevelt Nelson will serve as backups for Waters. Richardson, an engineering major and an original walk-on, has earned a letter the last two years. Nelson is a three-year letterman and a senior in 2004 who has been a top special teams player.

Tramaine Billie will be the starter at the SAM linebacker position. Billie started six of the 11 games last year at the WHIP linebacker position and had 62 tackles, fifth on the Clemson team. He added nine tackles for loss and two sacks. His top game was a 10-tackle performance in the win over NC State. Maurice Nelson, Roosevelt’s younger brother, will serve as a backup for Billie.

David Dunham and Nick Watkins will battle for the third starting linebacker position. Both are experienced 6-2 hard hitters who will play the WILL linebacker slot. Dunham is a senior who played fullback early in his career. He had 28 tackles a year ago when he played in all 11 games for 162 total plays. Watkins had 53 tackles last year, more than any other non-starter. Forty of his 53 tackles were first hits.

Clemson’s secondary was listed among the best in the nation in the preseason for 2004 and by season’s end they lived up to those standards. Clemson ranked 12th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and 25th in overall total defense. Clemson had 11 interceptions over the last six games.

Clemson must replace 2004 starters Travis Pugh and Justin Miller, but return starters Jamaal Fudge and Tye Hill. Both are seniors who will be leaders of the entire team, not just the defense.

Fudge had 66 tackles last year to rank fourth on the team, second among secondary players. Fudge had 13 passes defensed, 10 passes broken up and three interceptions for a team best 55 return yards. This will be his third year as a starter and he has more interceptions than any other active Tiger with seven. Hill had 21 passes defensed last year to rank in the top five in the nation. A running back his freshman year who was the ACC 100 meter outdoor track champion in 2004, Hill is one of the most improved defensive players in the ACC over the last three years. He had four passes broken up at Miami and four in the win over rival South Carolina to close the season.

The CAT position is a secondary position that is similar to a safety. C.J. Gaddis, a backup cornerback last year, is listed as the starter at this position entering the spring. The former quarterback who also lettered on the Clemson baseball team last spring, had 21 tackles last year as a nickel back and reserve behind Justin Miller.

Tavaghn Monts is a senior defensive back who will challenge Gaddis at the CAT position. He had a big pass deflection in overtime in the win over Wake Forest last year. Michael Hamlin, a high school All-American who red-shirted last year as a freshman, also will see playing time at the CAT position.

Sergio Gilliam, a second-team corner last year who had 14 tackles, is slated as the starting corner opposite of Hill. He is a 6-3 player who should be effective in jump ball situations against tall wide receivers. Chris Clemons, a red-shirt freshman, and Brandon Nolen, a former running back, will both battle for playing time at both cornerback positions.

Special Teams Clemson was outstanding in special teams in 2004, leading the ACC and ranking fourth in the nation in kickoff returns. Clemson also blocked four punts, most by a Tiger team since 1989. Clemson returns both its starting placekicker and starting punter from 2004, but will have to find a replacement for one of the best kick return players in ACC football history.

Cole Chason has been Clemson’s starting punter each of the last two seasons and improved his punting average from 38.6 as a freshman to 40.2 as a sophomore in 2004. He has been very consistent, averaging over 36.2 yards in net punting each of the last two years. He had 19 punts inside the 20 in 2003 and 18 last year. He finished the season strong with a 41.5 net punting average with a career high four punts inside the 20 in the victory over South Carolina.

Jad Dean made 12-15 field goals in 2004, his first year as the starting placekicker. 10 of those 12 made field goals took place in the last four games of the season. He had four field goals and scored a career high 14 points in the 26-20 win over NC State, then made 3-3 in the win over South Carolina.

Dean really has a big impact for the Clemson defense, as he had 25 touchbacks on his 50 kickoffs, a big reason opponents started at their own 20-yard-line 72 percent of the time last year. Clemson had a nine-yard advantage in average starting position after kickoffs in 2004. Clemson must replace Justin Miller, the nation’s kickoff return champion in 2004 with a 33.05 average. Miller, who turned professional after his junior year, became the ACC’s career leader in this category with 30.68 career average, among the top 10 in NCAA history. Miller also ranked 19th in punt returns last year and had five total kick returns for touchdowns in his career a Clemson record.

Chansi Stuckey are two returning players with experience in this area and could be factors in this area. Or, an incoming freshman could have an impact in this area in 2005.

Clemson had a solid year in kick coverage last year, allowing just 7.8 yards per punt return and no kick returns for touchdowns. Nick Watkins had 10 special teams tackles, while Steven Jackson had nine apiece. All three return for 2005, as do Gaines Adams, Gaddis and Stuckey, who combined for Clemson’s four blocked kicks in 2004.