A Secondary Delimma

An interesting dilemma emerged on the practice fields this spring at Clemson University. No, it wasn't whether or not Willie Simmons could unseat Charlie Whitehurst as the starting quarterback. And it didn't have to do with Duane Coleman or Reggie Merriweather trying to overtake Yusef Kelly as the starting running back.

No, this problem lies in the secondary. More specifically, this problem lies at cornerback.

And quite honestly, that statement may surprise a lot of people, but consider all the facts before you form a concrete opinion.

Next season, the Clemson Tigers will have the luxury of having a future All-American patrolling one side of the football field in cornerback Justin Miller. However Miller, who finished his freshman year tied with Brian Mance for the team lead in interceptions with 8, will most certainly not see very many passes thrown his way in 2003.

"He's still got a lot of growing up to do," Tommy Bowden said of Miller this spring. "He's just a freshman, and even though he was able to put together a phenomenal year last season, there is a lot more learning to do. I want him to be a lot better than he is."

The Owensboro, Kentucky native broke up 17 passes to go along with those 8 interceptions, and he also added 61 tackles, including 43 first hits. That tackle total ranked eighth on the team even though he started just eight games last season.

When you have a cornerback that you can just stick out there on an island and not worry about a thing, it gives your defense a lot of flexibility. However, it also forces the corner on the other side of the field to step up and make some plays when the ball goes in his direction.

And that brings us to one of our big question marks heading into fall practice- who is that corner going to be?

Of course the popular consensus coming out of spring ball is that Tye Hill has locked down the spot opposite of Justin Miller. And certainly Hill has made a fairly quick transition to defense after spending his first two seasons in Tiger Town as a running back.

His speed is unmatched, and he also plays surprisingly tougher than his smaller physique may indicate. Even Tommy Bowden himself was impressed with how quickly he adapted to the defensive side of the ball this spring.

"His effort has been really good," Bowden said. "He's got some toughness and he's very eager. I thought he might be like on defense. He's still got a lot to learn, but he's making progress."

Defensive coordinator John Lovett has also had some good things to say about Hill after spring ball. "He really has the ability to play that position, and we had considered moving him there before," Lovett said. "Now it's just a matter of putting all the pieces together. He still needs more experience and a better knowledge of the position, but he's got all the ability to play it."

While the early returns have been quite positive, there still could be some cause for concern.

First, junior college transfer Brian Staley looks like he's going to be ineligible to play football at Clemson this fall. Staley is one of those rare athletes that you could almost go ahead and pencil in as a starter before he even arrived on campus.

In two years at Georgia Military, the Aiken native was named a JUCO All-American, and brought in almost 20 interceptions, with 6 of those being returned for scores.

With Staley likely out of the picture this season, the cornerback that starts on the opposite side of the field as Justin Miller is going to have their work cut out for them.

Hill has the pure speed and the athletic ability to become an integral part of this defense. The key word in that sentence however is "become." He's close, but he's not quite there just yet.

As one of the fastest players in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hill's natural tendency is to depend too much on his speed and give the opposing wide receiver too much cushion. Simply put, this can allow a receiver to get wide open on the underneath routes across the middle of the field.

Hill will have the chance to solidify his spot there this fall, but Toure Francis could also make some noise should he continue to recover from the devastating knee injury he suffered last year in the season opener against Georgia.

Francis, a native of Columbia who has worked his way up from a walk-on to a potential spot on the first team, started the Georgia game and played just 12 snaps on defense before suffering the injury that would force him to sit out the rest of the year.

He was able to participate in drills this spring, but he wasn't able to do anything that involved extensive contact.

"We think that Toure can get close to 100% before the fall," said Bowden. "He's been working hard and doing what he needs to do to get back on the field, and obviously that's going to help us out numbers-wise at corner."

The Tigers also have some concern at rover, where former cornerback Jamaal Fudge emerged this past spring as the starter.

Former JUCO transfer Kelvin Morris was believed to be one of players that John Lovett was hoping could be the starter come August 30th against Georgia, but the Timmonsville native missed a good part of spring practice with a knee injury that required surgery.

Incoming freshman Maurice Nelson will also have the opportunity to see the field at rover, but expecting a true freshman to contribute immediately is the equivalent to trying to depend on the lottery for a paycheck. It's just not a wise thing to do.

At free safety, the Tigers appear to have upgraded their talent level in Tavaughn Monts, who is coming off of a redshirt season, and Travis Pugh, who served as a back up to Eric Meekins last year.

Monts had a very impressive spring; culminating in a dominating performance at the Orange & White game with one interception and one fumble recovery. Pugh has been steady, and even though he may be listed as the starter on the post spring depth chart, Monts will see the field a good bit this fall.

While there are some question marks in the secondary headed into the 2003 season, there's little doubt that the unit has improved remarkably since John Lovett took over more than one year ago.

However, the team as a whole still hasn't come close to reaching some of the goals that Tommy Bowden has established.

"Right now we haven't reached a level that I would like to reach," Bowden said after the spring game. "My expectations are a lot higher. Playing in bowl games -- that's not the objective. It's certain types of bowl games. Four straight bowls are nice for a lot of people but it's not nice for us. The objectives that I would like to meet have not been met yet."

"Defense is going to win championships and that's always going be my philosophy," Bowden added. "The better you are defensively, the better chance you have. I'd rather see them dominate spring practice, two-a-days, the season or whenever."

If it's going to be the defense that leads this team back to the glory days of Clemson football, you can bet that that the Tigers' secondary is going to be an instrumental part of that resurgence.

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