Sept. 29, 2006
By Ashley Earle
Duane Coleman has never been to an exotic island such as Jamaica or Hawaii. However for the past two years, he has been on an island by himself every time he sets foot on the football field. Having changed positions from running back to cornerback during his junior season, Coleman not only enjoys his new isolation, but he revels in it.
Coleman almost did not have a chance to even play football. As a young boy in New York, he grew up playing football with his older friends. After an injury, Coleman’s mother was hesitant on letting him play the sport again.
“When I was younger, I lived in New York and used to play sandlot with older guys, and I broke my femur bone when I was just seven-years-old,” Coleman recounted.
“Once I moved to Florida, football was the main thing to do, but my mom would not let me play because of my previous injury in New York. Then my basketball coach asked if I wanted to play football. I said `yes’ right away. His son was already playing, and he offered to take me to and from practice, and he talked to mom about letting me play. With my aunt’s encouragement, my mom finally conceded, and the rest is history.”
Coleman not only was allowed to play football, but he excelled at it. During his senior year in high school, he helped lead Naples High to a state title when he carried the ball 28 times for 203 yards in the championship game. In his senior season, he rushed for 2,814 yards, averaged 11.4 yards per rush, and scored 40 touchdowns.
Coleman’s success on the field led to many scholarship offers, including offers from Miami (FL), Michigan State, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and West Virginia along with Clemson. However, he did not meet the NCAA admission requirements initially, so Coleman was not able to sign with a college on signing day. Thus, he waited at home during the summer after his senior year to see what his fate would be.
“I felt like my football career was pretty much over,” admitted Clemson’s #3. “I was too proud to go to a junior college, so it was either go to a Division I school and sit out or sit at home and be one of those players that had talent and never went anywhere.
“It was tough, but I finally got the call to go to Clemson. I never wanted to be one of those players, and I wasn’t going to be content with staying at home. I wanted to play football, and Clemson gave me the opportunity (as a partial qualifier). They took a chance on me, and I will always be grateful.”
After enrolling at Clemson, he had to sit out his first year as a partial qualifier. The transition was different from what he was used to.
“I had played football since I was a little kid,” stated Coleman. “I was always a big part of the game, and to sit out (freshman year) was a new experience. I just went out there and tried to make my teammates better. I learned a lot, and I improved my game. In the end, I think it helped me.”
The 2003 season, his first season of eligibility, proved to be Coleman’s breakout year. He rushed for 615 yards and became the leading rusher on a Clemson team that won nine games and finished ranked in the top 25 of both polls.
In addition to his success running the football, Coleman established himself as a reliable receiver out of the backfield. He was the fourth-leading receiver on the team with 34 catches for 309 yards, an accomplishment that left a place in the history books. Coleman’s 34 catches were the second-most receptions in a season by a Tiger running back. Coleman helped the Tigers to a Peach Bowl victory against #6 Tennessee. He had four receptions and an eight-yard run on an option pitch for a touchdown. By the end of the season, Coleman was eighth in the ACC in rushing, 17th in total offense, and 25th in receiving.
He finished the season with 615 yards rushing and 309 receiving, joining Travis Zachery as the only players in Clemson history to record at least 600 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving in the same year. While Coleman had a solid 2003 season, the 2004 season would come to be one plagued with injuries. During a preseason practice, he broke his foot.
“That was a difficult time for me. I was not able to play my first year, then after improving my game, I was able to help the team my second year. I had been practicing and counting down the days until our first game of the year. Then I broke my foot in an August practice. I now had to go from playing to encouraging my teammates and helping them prepare.”
Although injuries clouded his 2004 season, Coleman was still able to contribute. He played in nine games, including two as a starter against Virginia and Utah State. He was second on the team in rushing with 284 yards.
The 2005 season was just as eventful as his previous two seasons. He entered the season as a running back, and one with two years of experience at the position. But during the first two games, he saw limited playing time.
“I’m not used to sitting on the bench and watching the game from the sideline,” admitted Coleman. “We were playing against Maryland and I didn’t get any snaps during that game. I was frustrated personally even though we won a close game. I was on the plane coming back and I asked Coach (Dabo) Swinney about playing receiver, and that was quickly shot down.
“So I talked to Coach (Vic) Koenning on the plane and asked if the defense needed me, and he thought it was a joke. The next thing I know I had another jersey in my locker that Monday, which signified that I was going to be on defense, so everything turned out for the best.”
During the 2005 Miami game, Coleman made his defensive debut. He played eight snaps and had one tackle. The following game against Boston College, he played 19 snaps and had four tackles. He had three tackles, including a caused fumble, to help lead the Tigers to victory against N.C. State.
As Coleman began to get the hang of the cornerback position, the coaches kept giving him more playing time. He received his first start against #16 Florida State and was the leading tackler with nine. He had five tackles, including one for a loss, and a pass breakup in the Champs Sports Bowl win over Colorado. He finished the season with 35 tackles, quite a total considering he did not become a starter until the 10th game of the season.
Coleman attributes his success in transitioning from offense to defense to two coaches. “Coach (Burton) Burns has always been there for me,” said Coleman. “He has those personal talks with me when I’m going through things. He seems to know me pretty well.
“Also, Coach Koenning took me by the hand when I didn’t know anything from a defensive standpoint and helped me. So now I know the defensive gameplan very well, because before last year, I had played defense maybe 10 times during my whole football career. So in a sense, last year was the first time I had ever played defense, and Coach Koenning helped me with the transition.”
Now in his fifth and final year as a Tiger, Coleman is familiar enough with the defense and has become a team leader. With the many injuries that have surrounded the defense, Coleman has had to step up another notch.
“I’ve got to be a little more vocal and make sure the younger guys are paying attention in practice,” stated Coleman. “I’m trying to make sure they know their keys and reads. I also make sure that I’m doing my things right, because if you’re not doing things right, then the younger players are not going to listen to you.
“I’ve got to be a role model and make sure I’m on top of my game. Another thing I try to do is keep the secondary intact, both on and off the field. I hang out with Sergio Gilliam, Roy Walker, and Chris Clemons to name a few.”
With the longest dreadlocks on the team, Coleman is easy to find on the field. He is passionate about the game, and it is seen by all as he encourages his teammates and makes the big plays.
Coleman has proved himself a leader on the field. Most notably, Coleman played well in the double overtime loss to Boston College. He had nine tackles and his first career sack along with a pass breakup. He was seen jumping up and down with his trademark dreadlocks, trying to encourage his team and fans throughout the game.
“Going into overtime was something that I didn’t want to do,” explained Coleman. “I was tired, but I wanted to fake out Boston College a little bit. I wanted our fans to see that I was ready to play, and for them to stand up and give support.”
He was also an instrumental part in defeating #9 Florida State earlier this season. The Tigers were on the road and had not won in Tallahassee since 1989. With three defensive starters (Tramaine Billie, Anthony Waters, Michael Hamlin) out with injuries, the defense made adjustments going into the game against the Seminoles.
The coaches knew they would have to rely on his leadership, and Coleman arguably played his best game to date. He once again led the secondary in tackles with 10 stops. In addition, during a crucial drive for Florida State, Coleman recovered a fumble that thwarted a first down. With many of his family members in the stands, Coleman showed his athletic talent and leadership. For his efforts, he was named ACC Defensive Back-of-the-Week.
“That was an important game,” replied Coleman. “I’m from Florida, and a lot of my family and friends were able to come to the game. We had not won there since 1989, and the odds were not in our favor, but we played well and made the big plays when we needed to.”
Coleman is the only player in Tiger history to start a bowl game on both sides of the ball. He is the first Tiger in history to record 50 career tackles and 50 career receptions as well.
Coleman is set to graduate this December. Having entered Clemson with football on his mind five years ago, his education became a secondary thought. However, with his graduation drawing close, Coleman cherishes the accomplishment more than anything else.
“Graduating means a lot to me,” said Coleman. “Everyone has the dream of going pro, and sometimes they forget how important an education is. Getting my degree is going to be a great moment in my life. I have come a long way to get where I am.”
“Duane is on track to graduate, and he will do it,” said Head Coach Tommy Bowden. “That will be a great story when he goes across the stage. He has really done a great job in the secondary and is a leader on defense. We need that leadership. He is a natural defensive player because he has that demeanor.”
Throughout the obstacles in his life, Coleman has endured them and come out for the better. He was determined to go to college and not remain in Naples. He improved his game during his first season at Clemson in order to be a better football player. He led the team in rushing his second year, and dealt with a foot injury the following year. He then went from a position that was familiar to him to one that was unknown.
Coleman has since worked his way to the top of the depth chart at cornerback and has not looked back. He is isolated at cornerback when he is on the football field, and he would not want to be anywhere else.
Against all odds, Coleman has endured life on an island.
Ashley Earle, a sophomore from Easley, SC, is a student assistant in the Clemson Sports Information Office.
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