March 16, 1998
Overall Clemson Head Football Coach Tommy West faces a task no other coach in the ACC and very few in the country must accept. The fifth-year mentor must find replacements for his school’s all-time leading passer (Nealon Greene), all-time leading rusher (Raymond Priester), second-ranked tackler (Anthony Simmons) and record-setting single season receiver (Tony Horne). That does not even take into consideration the loss of two of the school’s best offensive linemen in the 1990s, All-America tackler Jim Bundren and All-ACC guard Glenn Rountree, and the school’s best tight end in over a decade, Lamont Hall.
That is quite a list of celebrated players, the corps group that has taken Clemson to three straight bowl games, something only 16 teams in the country can state. Overall, West (27-20) has lost 23 lettermen and 12 starters from a 7-5 Tiger team that lost three games by a touchdown or less to teams who finished among the top dozen teams in the nation in the final Associated Press Poll.
The hopes for this season rest with the return of 42 lettermen and 12 starters, plus the eligibility of 15 freshmen who spent last year as red-shirts. West also will bring along many of a 25-man signing class that was ranked among the top 20 in the nation by many services.
“We have certainly lost some of Clemson’s top players of the last decade,” said West of his 19-member senior class of 1998. And, that class did not include Anthony Simmons, the most decordated Clemson football player in 15 years and perhaps the school’s greatest linebacker, who decided to turn pro after his junior year.
“We will have to count on some new players, especially offensively, who have not had to carry the load. But, we do have talented players returning, including some very good athletes from the class we red-shirted a year ago. I don’t think there will be a drop off in talent, but there will be a drop off in experience. We as a staff, we have to find who will be our big play people. This spring we will determine those people and how to best get the ball in their hands.”
The offense must replace players who now hold 60 Clemson records. But, West will welcome back wide receivers Brian Wofford and Mal Lawyer, who both had 28 receptions for nearly the same yardage total (388 for Wofford and 384 for Lawyer). Javis Austin and Terry Witherspoon each had over 220 yards last year, while the offensive line will be paced by two-year starting tackle Holland Postell.
For the first time in four years, Clemson will have a new signal caller. Brandon Streeter is the only player on the roster with experience at that position, but he will be challenged in spring practice by Woody Dantzler and Slade Nagle. “Offensively, the big question will be at quarterback,” said West, who has started Nealon Greene at the position for 40 of his 47 games as head coach.
“Heading into the spring everyone is involved. Brandon Streeter will be the number-one quarterback on the first day of spring because he is the only quarterback on our roster who has played in a game. But, it is as wide open as it can be.”
West does have 23 returning lettermen on defense, including six from a secondary that was playing its best football at the conclusion of the 1997 season. All four players who started in the secondary in each of the last two games return. That includes second-team All-ACC defensive back Antwan Edwards, who started six games at safety and five at cornerback in 1997. Rahim Abdullah continues the Clemson linebacker tradition, while two-year starter Adrian Dingle will be the leader of the defensive linemen.
“From a defensive standpoint, I’d like to continue exactly where we left off last year. In the last three games we played defense like we are used to watching around here. We want to build off those last three games.” Clemson held North Carolina to 65 yards rushing, had timely interceptions in the 26-point win over rival South Carolina, and held Auburn to 107 yards rushing and a 34 percent completion percentage all over the last three games of the season.
Offense (16 returning lettermen, 5 returning starters) Clemson established school records for passing yards, completions and completion percentage in 1997, Steve Ensminger’s first year as offensive coordinator. Those records will be tough to match as he must replace Nealon Greene (180-290 for 2212 yards, 16 TDs) and star wide receiver Tony Horne (70-907), who established a single season mark for receptions and tied the record for touchdown receptions (8).
The only quarterback in camp with any game experience is junior Brandon Streeter. The native of Gettysburg, PA completed 8-21 for 87 yards last season in his four games of action. He does have experience in “Big Game” situations however, as he took the Tigers down the field for a touchdown against Florida State on the opening drive of last year’s 35-28 game in Death Valley. A separated shoulder in the first half of the contest shelved him for the next four games, but he has proven that he can perform against one of the top defenses in the nation.
Also involved in the quarterback derby are Woody Dantzler, Slade Nagle and Jason Flanders. All three red-shirted this past season and will be given a strong look this spring.
“Brandon should understand this offense better than anyone because he was preparing each week last year as the backup. Slade, Woody and Jason were scout team quarterbacks last year and really did not have that experience.
“If we come out of spring practice with a strong number-one quarterback I will be happy because that would mean someone has really jumped to the forefront. It wouldn’t be a bad situation to have the competition continue into the fall because that way no one feels like they are out of it. “
Despite the loss of Horne, one of 10 semifinalists for the Belitnikof Award, Clemson does have some depth and talent returning at wide receiver. There are six returning lettermen who collectively caught 76 passes. The list includes Brian Wofford, a first-team Academic All-ACC pass catcher last year who had 28 receptions for 388 yards and four scores. He caught at least one pass in every game last year and has a streak of 15 straight games heading into 1998. He had a high of six catches at Georgia Tech.
Mal Lawyer had 28 catches for just four yards less than Wofford’s accumulation. The native of Charleston and Berkeley High School was one of the most improved players on the Clemson team last year. He started five games and had three touchdown receptions, including one against South Carolina. He had at least one catch in 11 of the 12 games of 1998.
The sophomore class also has some talented returnees. Rod Gardner had 8-101, including a spectacular 41-yard touchdown catch in the victory at Wake Forest. His 6-4 size will make him a factor this season. Marcus Martin is a classmate who came on stong at the end of last season and had six receptions for 60 yards. Martin is sitting out the spring, but is expected to come back in the fall.
Mike Seth and Justin Watts are two more returning lettermen. Seth had one catch in limited action, while Watts had five receptions for 71 yards within the first three games of the season, then suffered a knee injury against Florida State that ended his season.
In addition to these experienced players, Matt Bailey and Waymon White are two talented performers who red-shirted last season. Both are in the 6-3 to 6-4 range and will give the young quarterbacks large targets.
For the first time in four years, Clemson will not give the ball to Raymond Priester 20 times a game. The school’s all-time leading rusher graduated with 18 Clemson records last fall, including the standards for rushing yards on a game, season and career basis.
But, West does have two young running backs returning, who should help to keep Clemson’s land attack among the best in the ACC. Terry Witherspoon and Javis Austin (like Wofford and Lawyer) were just four yards apart in their production last season. Witherspoon, a junior who started four games at fullback last season, had 58-224 yards and three scores. Austin, a sophomore from Clemson, had 59-220 and two scores.
Both players had big games toward the end of the season when Priester was limited by injury. Witherspoon had 11-76 in the win over Wake Forest, while Austin had 19-90 and a touchdown in the victory at South Carolina. Travis Zachery, who red-shirted last year due to an ankle injury, and Dymon Adams, who entered Clemson in January as a junior college transfer, will also be in the picture. Both have speed Clemson has been missing in recent years.
“We will start spring practice with three tailbacks,” said West, who has not had to worry about the position in three years thanks to the consistency and durability of Priester. “Javis Austin will start the spring at tailback, but he is capable of also playing fullback. We have had interchangeable backs the last couple of years as far as playing both positions and that could be the case again this year.
“We are going to be different in the backfield this year in that we should be much quicker. I think both positions will be quicker. I expect Terry Witherspoon to pick up where he left off last year. He improved over the season and was a highlight for us on offense in the bowl game. His blocking improved at the end of the season.” The other fullbacks behind Witherspoon are John Thompson and Travis Macklin.
Clemson has ranked among the top two in the ACC in rushing each of the last three years and the play of the offensive line has certainly been a key to that statistic. West welcomes back three of the five interior line starters for this season, but only four total returning lettermen at the five positions.
“We have to replace two outstanding linemen in Bundren and Rountree. They started 47 straight games for us. We have lost a lot of leadership there and I am a coach who likes to have his team leaders on the offensive line.
“Even though we have lost outstanding backs, my biggest concern is in the offensive line. We must have some people step up. It is time for Matt Butler, Brent Banasciewicz to have a great senior year and we need some of the younger players like Kyle Young, Neely Page, John McDermott and Will Merritt to come through. They will have an opportunity and I hope they make the most of it.
“While the offensive line is a big concern, it is not as big a concern as it has been in previous years. We do have three solid returning starters in Holland Postell, Jason Gamble and Corey Hulsey. Holland has started 24 straight games for us and can be an all-conference player. I think Gamble and Hulsey will have very good years for us.”
The tight end position must also replace Lamont Hall, a two-year starter who many think is destined for a solid pro career. Hall caught 17 passes last year, most by a Clemson tight end since Jim Riggs in 1986. “I will tell you a guy we will miss as much as anyone is Lamont Hall,” said West. “He was a team leader and a terrific blocker.”
West will count on Wesley Ellis and T.J. Watkins to fill Hall’s shoes. Ellis has never caught a pass, but has been a solid blocker as a backup to Hall. Ellis started and played 50 snaps in the win over Duke when Hall played at fullback. Watkins is a red-shirt freshman who showed an ability to catch the ball during workouts last fall. “T.J. Watkins might be our biggest surprise of the winter workout program. He has gained close to 40 pounds since he got here and has improved his vertical jump by two inches. He has really worked hard.”
Defense (23 returning lettermen, 5 returning starters) While Clemson must find six new starters on defense, the Tigers do return 23 lettermen, including all-conference candidates Antwan Edwards, Rahim Abdullah, Adrian Dingle and Robert Carswell. The biggest hole is at inside linebacker where West must replace the irreplaceable Anthony Simmons, a prime ingredient to a Tiger defense that ranked 16th in the country in total defense, 18th in scoring defense.
“You can’t replace Anthony Simmons,” said West of the Clemson linebacker who had 486 tackles in just three years. Simmons could have become just the second player in the history of college football to earn AP All-America honors (first, second or third team) four times, but opted for the NFL. “Anthony did so much for our football team over the last three years, I would never put a tag on a player that he was the person to replace Anthony Simmons. “But I think we have some linebackers who are ready to step up and play the position and play it well. Harold Means got some experience at the end of the year when Mond Wilson was hurt. Chris Jones has been waiting four years to be a starter. Kenzi Ross and Raj Mitchell are talented players behind them and we signed some outstanding linebackers who will be joining the program in the fall.”
Means ranked sixth on the team in tackles last year with 56. He had 15 in the narrow loss to North Carolina when Clemson held the Tar Heels to just 17 points and just 67 yards rushing. Jones had 38 tackles in 142 snaps last year, a tackle every 5.7 plays, fourth best on the team. Ross had four tackles as a reserve last year, while Mitchell red-shirted the season.
The outside linebacker and rush end positions should be strong this year with the return of starters Rahim Abdullah and Adrian Dingle. Abdullah had 73 tackles for the season and was Clemson’s MVP in the Peach Bowl. He blocked two punts in that game and had a sack.
“Rahim has made a lot of big plays in the last two years,” said West of his gifted 6-6 240-pound outside linebacker who has already scored four touchdowns on returns. “He made the big play at NC State with a fumble return for a touchdown and ended the Duke game in overtime with an interception return.”
Dingle had 48 tackles last year, including 10 tackles for loss. He has 30 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks for his career, more than any other Tiger. “Adrian played in all but one game last year, but really had an injury plagued season. If we can just keep him healthy, he will have a great year for us. The senior, who played high school football with current Clemson basketball forward Harold Jamison, tied a school single game record with three sacks at Maryland last year.
O.J. Childress is a senior who has been a demon on special teams for three years who will backup Abdullah, while Terry Bryant, now 260 pounds, will backup Dingle. Bryant had a solid freshman year with 25 tackles in 175 plays, while Childress had 18 stops. Howard Bartley, a starter in 1996, who played in only seven games in 1997 due to a knee injury, will sit out spring practice, but should rejoin the team in the fall.
The defensive line must replace starters Raymond White, Tony Plantin and Lorenzo Bromell, key contributors to a defense that ranked sixth in the country against the run. But, as usual, West and defensive line coach Les Herrin played plenty of people a year ago, so there are experienced players up front.
A sophomore, a junior and a senior look to hold down the three interior spots on the Clemson defense. Donald Broomfield might be the most improved player on the Clemson defense according to West, and that includes from a leadership standpoint. The senior had 27 tackles in 12 games as a reserve a year ago.
Damonte McKenzie played 233 snaps and had one start a year ago when he had 26 tackles, while Terry Jolly had 19 tackles in eight games, including two as a starter. Jolly was to be red-shirted, but by the fourth game of the season, he was in the starting lineup. Theo Mougros, Jason Holloman and Gary Childress are three more returning lettermen up front who will see time for the Tigers.
This time a year ago the secondary was the most inexperienced and most questionable aspect of the Clemson defense. West started five different cornerbacks last year. But, by the end of the season he had found the right combination and the foursome returns in tact for 1998.
“The secondary should be one of the strengths of our football team. We had to do a lot of moving around last year, but they were a cohesive group by the end of the season. We are now strong at the corners with Antwan Edwards and DoMarco Fox. The safeties are young, but they have experience, and experience in big games. We know have some quality depth in the secondary.”
Antwan Edwards is among the top defensive backs in the nation. A safety for much of his career, he was moved to cornerback for the last two games of 1997. Against South Carolina he two interceptions, including one that he returned for a 42-yard touchdown. Also capable as a return man, Edwards was a second-team All-ACC defensive back last year. He ranked 36th in the nation in interceptions and 42nd in kickoff returns. Edwards had 15 passes broken up last year to rank second in the ACC and the figure tied a Clemson single season record. He posted 52 tackles for the season.
Clemson’s leading returning tackler comes from the secondary. DoMarco Fox had 74 stops in his 12 games as a starter, 10 as a safety and two at cornerback. He also finished the season strong with big plays, including a blocked punt against North Carolina in the final moments, a play that gave Clemson a chance to defeat the fifth ranked Tar Heels. Fox had seven passes broken up for the season and is regarded as the hardest hitter on the Clemson team.
A pair of freshmen will hold down the safety spots. Robert Carswell is a precocious free safety who started the last six games of 1997. He had 51 tackles for the season, including 11 stops and three passes broken up against Maryland in his first start. He played 405 snaps last year, more than any other Clemson freshman.
Darrel Crutchfield, played in just seven games, but started the last two. He had 20 tackles for the season, including five in the win at South Carolina and six in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Chad Speck will see much time at the safety positions. The 4.0 student scored a touchdown for the Tigers in the Peach Bowl on a blocked punt return. He had 15 tackles for the season.
Two more lettermen return at cornerback. Michael Allen is a returning starter at corner after starting eight games a year ago. He had 11 passes broken up, second on the team. David Evans, who had three starts last year, had 21 tackles in 245 plays, including nine in the win over Maryland. Dextra Polite, a junior college transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, is also in the cornerback picture.
Special Teams Clemson’s strongest area might be in the special teams area. The Tigers return a punter and a placekicker who ranked in the top 40 in the nation in their respective areas, the only ACC team that can make that statement. Clemson also has one of the top 45 kickoff return men in the nation back, as well as the top eight special teams tacklers from 1997.
David Richardson missed just two field goals all season, both from 47 yards out. The senior from Clemson, who concluded the season 26th in the nation in field goals per game, did not move into the starting lineup until the Maryland game at midseason and promtly made his first six attempts. His four field goals at Wake Forest, including a career long 52-yarder, were keys to that victory that put the Tigers one win from a bowl game.
In addition to making 13-15 field goals for the season and team best 56 total points, Richardson had a landmark season in terms of kickoffs. Forty-two percent of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks and 60 percent of the time the opposition started at their own 20 or worse. Those are the top percentages for a Clemson kicker since the NCAA moved the kickoff back to the 35-yard-line in 1986.
Kevin Laird has made great progress as a punter over his career, and now is an All-ACC candidate. Laird finished the season with a 42.8 average and had 16 punts inside the 20 to go with 15 punts of 50 yards or more. He had just seven touchbacks all season. The native of Mississippi ranked 33rd in the country in punting last season, an improvement of three yards a punt over his sophomore season.
Tommy West really likes Laird’s level of consistency and his ability to keep the opposition pinned with field position punts. Laird averaged at least 42 yads a punt over each of his last eight games, including a 43.7 average in the Peach Bowl against Auburn when he had three punts of at least 50 yards and two punts inside the 20. He had a 46.7 average in Clemson’s win at Maryland and had a season high 47.6 average against Florida State.
Clemson should also be outstanding in the return game and the defending of returns. Antwan Edwards, Clemson’s most experienced defensive back, averaged 23.3 yards a return on 12 attempts last year, 42nd best in the nation. He also has some experience as a punt returner in his career. Brian Wofford is also a capable return man.
Rahim Abdullah was Clemson’s MVP in the Peach Bowl against Auburn and one of the reasons was his ability to make big plays on special teams. Abdullah blocked two punts against Auburn to tie a Clemson single game mark. Clemson blocked six kicks last year, second best single season total in Clemson history.
The Tigers also return Chris Jones (13), DoMarco Fox (11) and O.J. Childress (10), and the trio were Clemson’s top special teams tacklers last season. This was an area of concern in the first half of the season and an area of strength by the conclusion of the season.
March 14, 2019