Thursday, August 6, 2009

season preview: Clemson


9/5: Middle Tennessee
9/10: @ Georgia Tech (Th.)
9/19: Boston College
9/26: TCU
10/3: @ Maryland
10/10: BYE
10/17: Wake Forest
10/24: @ Miami
10/31: Coastal Carolina
11/7: Florida State
11/14: @ NC State
11/21: Virginia
11/28: @ South Carolina

Skip: Duke, Virginia Tech, North Carolina

Projected starters:

QB: Willy Korn (RSo.)
RB: C.J. Spiller (Sr.)
FB: Rendrick Taylor (5Sr.)
WR: Jacoby Ford (Sr.)
WR: Xavier Dye (Jr.)
WR: Terrence Ashe (RJr.)
LT: Chris Hairston (RJr.)
LG: Thomas Austin (5Sr.)
C: Mason Cloy (RSo.)
RG: Antoine McClain (So.)
RT: Landon Walker (RSo.)

DE: Da’Quan Bowers (So.)
NG: Jarvis Jenkins (Jr.)
DT: Brandon Thompson (So.)
DE: Ricky Sapp (Sr.)
SLB: Scotty Cooper (Jr.)
MLB: Brandon Maye (RSo.)
WLB: Kavell Conner (5Sr.)
CB: Chris Chancellor (5Sr.)
CB: Crezdon Butler (Sr.)
FS: Sadat Chambers (5Sr.)
SS: DeAndre McDaniel (Jr.)

K: Spencer Benton (RFr.)
P: Dawson Zimmerman (So.)

Coach: Dabo Swinney (2nd year)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Media prediction: 2nd, Atlantic Division


2008 1st team: S Michael Hamlin, KR C.J. Spiller
2008 2nd team: RB C.J. Spiller, WR Aaron Kelly, C Thomas Austin
2008 HM: none
2009 preseason: RB C.J. Spiller, WR Jacoby Ford

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Last year around this time, the ACC coverage was Clemson and then everyone else. Finally, the media had found someone to pick for the ACC championship other than Florida State or Virginia Tech, and jumped on the chance good and hard. Poor Clemson never had a chance after that. The season imploded spectacularly in the first half of the first game, when the Tigers failed to prevent Alabama from scoring on every single drive save one – a missed Tide field goal. Between a 34-10 drubbing at the hands of Alabama and a bowl game choke job against Nebraska, a coach was fired, a quarterback went from the Heisman short list to the NFL scrap heap, and a fanbase got thoroughly riled up. It was not a good season. There’s much to improve on, but Clemson has a good shot at it this year.


The offense last year was routinely cited as the reason Clemson was a cert for the Orange Bowl. More precisely, the experience and dazzle of the skill players. Few paid any attention to the offensive line, the inexperience of which torpedoed the season. They couldn’t pass-protect – few teams’ quarterbacks ended up on their keisters more than Clemson’s.

This year, there’s a reversal of the situation, and Clemson fans have good reason to hope it’ll lead to a reversal of fortune too. The offensive line is where the experience can be found, with four returning starters. Yes, there’s the old saw about having a bunch of returning players being no good if they’re returning sucky players. Offensive line demands experience, however; Clemson’s having none last year was a huge cause of their problems. And that line is still blocking for C.J. Spiller, and frankly the run-blocking was not as bad as it appeared last year. Spiller managed 5.4 yards a carry – an excellent number – and Clemson’s lousy rushing stats were in large part the product of all the sacks they gave up. Spiller is an outside Heisman candidate and should have a very successful season.

Quarterback and the passing is where Clemson will have their question marks. Jacoby Ford returns as a target, but his fellow receivers are largely untested; Clemson graduated most of their catches last year. And Clemson’s in danger of falling victim to another old saw: If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any. Willy Korn appears (to my eyes, anyway) the front-runner for the job – he’s the most experienced anyway. But he wasn’t impressive in his cameos last year, averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt. He was only a freshman, but it’s another freshman, Kyle Parker, angling for the job against him. Either way, Clemson will have to overcome inexperience under center. At least this year they’ll have the foundation up front to build on.


Despite not placing a single player on the preseason all-conference team, Clemson’s defense shouldn’t be taken lightly. There’s talent and experience here. Especially at cornerback, where Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor picked off four passes each last year; Butler in fact is the ACC’s active interceptions leader, tied with Morgan Burnett of GT. Clemson will be extraordinarily difficult to pass against with just a ton of experience in the secondary, and to make matters worse for league quarterbacks, Da’Quan Bowers is set to be unleashed on a regular basis. A consensus five-star recruit and ESPN’s #1 in the class of 2008, Bowers was third on the team in tackles for loss last year despite not starting on a regular basis. The starting DE spot is all his now, and Clemson’s pass rush will be that much better for it.

The linebackers are anchored by Kavell Conner on the weak side, who led the team with 125 tackles last year. Six were for loss. Scotty Cooper is the lone new starter at linebacker, and that’s kind of a misnomer because he started four games. In fact, all four “new starters” were regulars last season, and most started at least one game. I’m starting to sound like a broken record to myself, but there’s a pretty constant theme here: this defense has been around the block a few times and knows the score.


Both kicking positions are filled by new starters and mostly unknown quantities. That’s always a down-check as far as placekicking is concerned. Spiller made first team all-ACC as a returner last year, but as he’s not sharing the running back duties this year, he probably will share the returning duties with someone more expendable.


The buzz around Clemson this year is much quieter. That’s because it’s way more exciting to media wags to have your returning starters at the skill positions, especially if one is a senior quarterback and Heisman candidate. They’re not garnering the attention, but I like their chances much better than I did last year anyway. But they’ll need solid quarterback play to reach their full potential. I’m not sold on Korn and Parker right away, which is why I voted for Tajh Boyd as the ACC freshman of the year in Gobbler Country’s poll – if Clemson is to finish second in the division, they may need a surprise candidate to step up and take the snaps. Still, with a defense as experienced as theirs and an offensive line that’s much more prepared for the lumps of a full season, Clemson’s a fair bet for that second place finish the media pegged them for, and if they can get quality quarterback play, they’ll be a serious challenger for first in the division and the title game.

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