Tuesday, July 29, 2008

season preview: Clemson


8/30: Alabama
9/6: The Citadel
9/13: North Carolina State
9/20: South Carolina State
9/27: Maryland
10/9: @Wake Forest (Th.)
10/18: Georgia Tech
10/1: @Boston College
10/8: @Florida State
10/15: Duke
10/22: @Virginia
10/29: South Carolina

Skip: Virginia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina

Projected starters:

QB: Cullen Harper (5Sr.)
RB: James Davis (Sr.)/C.J. Spiller (Jr.)
WR: Aaron Kelly (5Sr.)
WR: Tyler Grisham (Sr.)
WR: Jacoby Ford (Jr.)
TE: Michael Palmer (Jr.)
LT: Cory Lambert (rJr.)
LG: Jamarcus Grant (rJr.)
C: Thomas Austin (rJr.)
RG: Barry Humphries (rJr.)
RT: Chris Hairston (rSo.)

DE: Kevin Alexander (Jr.)
NG: Dorell Scott (5Sr.)
DT: Rashaad Jackson (5Sr.)
DE: Ricky Sapp (Jr.)
SLB: Scotty Cooper (So.)
MLB: Brandon Maye (rFr.)
WLB: Kavell Conner (rJr.)
CB: Chris Chancellor (rJr.)
SS: Michael Hamlin (5Sr.)
FS: Chris Clemons (5Sr.)
CB: Crezdon Butler (Jr.)

K: Mark Buchholz (5Sr.)
P: Jimmy Maners (5Sr.)

Coach: Tommy Bowden (10th season)

Media prediction: 1st, Atlantic Division

All-ACC selections:
2007 1st team: RB James Davis, WR Aaron Kelly, OT Barry Richardson (graduated), OG Chris McDuffie (graduated)
2007 2nd team: QB Cullen Harper, S Michael Hamlin
2007 HM: DE Philip Merling (graduated), DT Dorell Scott, KR-PR C.J. Spiller
2008 preseason: QB Cullen Harper, RB James Davis, RB Aaron Kelly, S Michael Hamlin

It’s a sign of how the ACC is viewed across the country that Clemson is the near unanimous pick to be celebrating in Tampa as ACC champions, yet is never mentioned when the conversation turns to the crystal football. Indeed, most media-types agree that This Is Clemson’s Year; they return their entire offensive skill set, entire secondary, and most of the defensive line. The feeling is that if Tommy Bowden can’t get it done this year, he may never.


Cullen Harper is the preseason selection as ACC player of the year with just barely half the votes – but that’s OK for Clemson, because gobbling up most of the rest are RBs James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Of the 64 votes, only 10 did not go to one of the Tigers’ trio. Harper has all his weapons lined up to throw at as well, especially fellow preseason all-ACCer Aaron Kelly, last year’s ACC leader in receiving yards.

Clemson probably has the ACC’s best quarterback and stable of running backs and receivers, so it’s easy to see why they’re such a popular pick for the Orange Bowl. But if the rebuilt offensive line doesn’t hold, they’re going to have a tough time against teams with front sevens capable of making a mess of backfields. Gone are all-conference Barry Richardson and Chris McDuffie; Richardson held down the all-important left tackle spot, protecting Harper’s blindside. Thomas Austin is solid at center, but he and the other returnee Barry Humphries switched positions last year; Austin was recruited as a guard. The three new starters aren’t completely without experience, but the line is still in flux and may see changes even as the season goes on. It’s the biggest question mark on the team, and if Clemson doesn’t live up to expectations, Bowden will take the heat but the offensive line will likely be at the root of the problem.


On defense it’s not the bevy of returning starters that has Clemson fired up. Sure, they’ve got a rock-solid core of 5th-year senior defensive tackles in Dorell Scott and Rashaad Jackson. And sure, the middle of the secondary is the same way; in particular, all-conference strong safety Michael Hamlin, the leading returning tackler. It’s not the seniors, but a freshman, that has Clemson fans excited. Recruiting services don’t always agree on much but they agree on this: DaQuan Bowers is the shit. Rated no lower than #2 in the entire nation at any position by the scouting services, Bowers is not atop the depth chart at DE just yet – that is junior Kevin Alexander right now – but Bowers, an early enrollee who took part in spring practice, is in his rearview mirror. Bowers wears the #93 that was once the property of fourth-overall draft choice Gaines Adams.

Like the offense, however, there’s a crucial unit full of question marks. The Tigers graduated two starting linebackers and booted the third for DUI and, I dunno, not being sorry enough maybe. Thusly spring practice saw what coaches call an opportunity for different players to step up and what fans call “oh god we have no linebackers.” Linebacker is the only place where Clemson currently figures to start anyone less experienced than a third-year player; Scotty Cooper is a true sophomore and Brandon Maye is a redshirt freshman. Even so there’s nothing laid in stone. Unintentionally, Clemson DC Vic Koenning is a funny, funny man:

"Right now, I feel like we're more productive at linebacker than I can remember us being in a while," said Koenning, in his fourth season as coordinator.

Either Koenning said that in the middle of last season, or he’s certifiable. Last year’s starting linebackers were 1st, 4th, and 6th on the team in tackles, and none of them are still on the team.


P Jimmy Maners and K Mark Buchholz add to the bevy of 5th-year seniors littering Clemson’s lineup. Maners is solid, averaging nearly 43 yards a kick. Buchholz is not NFL material at only 6-of-17 outside 39 yards, but he’s reasonably dependable, not missing on any extra points in 2007. Spiller and Ford will continue to handle the return duties; both are dangerous, especially Spiller who brought two kicks back to the end zone in ’07.


Clemson is not a hard team to figure. They are hogging all the conference talent at the offensive skill positions and are very, very experienced at most defensive spots. The linebackers are an issue, but not the kind that will make or break a season. It’s all very simple: If the offensive line can gel as a unit, open up holes for Davis and Spiller, and keep Harper’s nice orange uniform clean, Clemson will go to the Orange Bowl. Boosters will open the checkbooks, Tommy Bowden will carry on the family legacy of being allowed to coach well after senility has set in, the fatted calf will be slaughtered, and yea there will be rejoicing in Death Valley such as has not been seen since the warriors from Florida State invaded ACC-land. If not? Then Clemson will go bowling in Florida, oh yes, but to Orlando instead of Miami, to play in the Rodney Dangerfield Bowl against the Big Ten; two conferences that don’t get no respect. Rejoicing will be replaced by wailing and gnashing of teeth. And it might be Tommy’s turn to swing from a tree in effigy.

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