Preseason Questions Being Answered

As the Tigers begin winding down two-a-days, the answers to all the preseason questions are slowly starting to present themselves. In this report, we take a look at the battle at cornerback, offensive line depth, and changes in store for the Tigers' special teams in 2003.

Offensive Line Depth
Every preseason college football publication printed covering the Clemson Tigers has talked about the offensive line.

Will there be depth with this until in 2003? Will any true freshmen contribute? Can this unit improve and stay healthy this year?

Slowly but surely, the answers to these questions are starting to emerge.
For starters, it appears that Brandon Pilgrim and Marion Dukes have paved the way for a spot on the second team at guard and tackle. Both players participated in Saturday's scrimmage with the second team offensive line.

Dukes has added significant weight this offseason, but he'll probably need to lose a good 10 pounds to maximize his effectiveness. He's moved up to the second team behind right tackle Gregory Walker and could be in a position to contribute early in his career.

Pilgrim has quietly looked impressive during his first two weeks of practice even though he said earlier this week that he felt like it would be tough to avoid a redshirt this year.

After Tommy Bowden decided to redshirt every offensive lineman in the 2002 class, it looks as though at least one, if not both of these players will help provide some depth up front this year.

With starters Gregory Walker, William Henry, Tommy Sharpe, and Cedric Johnson returning this season, the Tigers have some substantial experience up front.

However, one of the most intriguing battles going on in camp has been between two guys who are just starting to make their mark at Clemson in Chip Myrick and Nathan Bennett. The redshirt freshman Bennett had overtaken Myrick at right guard this past spring, but Myrick is now playing at about 290 pounds and has won the starting position back this fall.

Tommy Sharpe, who is really starting to emerge as one of the vocal leaders of the offensive line, continues to hold off redshirt freshman Dustin Fry at center. Nevertheless, Fry has positioned himself to see significant playing time this year and should be a big time contributor to the team.

If anything, the Tigers trenchmen will be improved this year because there is competition at almost every position. Whether it's a true freshman like Pilgrim or Dukes trying to avoid a redshirt, or guys like Roman Fry and Nathan Bennett trying to assert themselves as starters, each player on the first team is being pushed for playing time.

"You've got guys out there working so hard that they are out there crying and throwing up," said Greg Walker. "Those guys don't see the dedication that we are putting in. They don't see the intensity in the eyes of the players around me."

When you consider that the overall talent gap between the first and second team has closed, and that more players with more size are now positioning themselves for playing time, the Tigers' offensive line should be vastly improved in 2003.

Special Teams
After watching some of the replays of various Clemson games from the 2002 season, it's painfully obvious that the Tigers' special teams are in need of a dramatic overhaul.

Five touchdowns were scored on kickoff or punt returns as special teams miscues were instrumental in losses against nationally ranked Georgia and Florida State last season.

Entering the start of fall practice, it was expected that incoming freshman Jad Dean would likely handle kickoffs in 2003. Dean, who has been fairly consistent at getting his kickoffs into the endzone so far, appears to have locked up those duties.

"Stephen Furr will have to beat out Jad Dean if he is going to do kickoffs this year," Bowden said last week.

Dean will be the one of the most important changes to the Tigers' special teams this year simply because he should reduce the number of returnable kicks considerably. However, there are also some additional changes in the works from a special teams perspective.

It appears as though the coaching staff is experimenting with different punt team formations and personnel. Certainly, that sort of thing is typical this time of year, but don't be suprised to see a starter or two sprinkled throughout several special team units.

Tommy Bowden won't publicly comment on what those changes will be, and understandably so. He knows that he needs every advantage he can get if the Tigers are going to upset Georgia in two weeks.

Perhaps the biggest question mark still out there is punter Cole Chason. Chason has had mixed reviews through his first 10 days of practice, but there's little doubt that there's more "pop" in his leg than what we saw out of Wynn Kopp a year ago.

Senior placekicker Aaron Hunt has seemingly shaken off his spring slump after connecting on 7-of-8 field goals during the Tigers' first two scrimmages of the year. Hunt's range is pushed to its limits once he gets past the 46-47 yard mark, so don't be surprised to see Dean get a chance on a long field goal attempt before the end of a half this year.

The return game will continue to be a strength for Clemson in 2003 as Justin Miller and Derrick Hamilton will handle those duties.

Hill vs. Francis
The cornerback position opposite Justin Miller continues to be a focal point of fall practice as senior Toure Francis and Tye Hill battle it out for a spot on the first team.

Francis has looked outstanding on the practice fields after recovering from a torn ACL is his left knee that kept him out of 12 games last year.

"I've been 100% for most of the summer," said Francis. "I can cut and move around back there with no problem. That's the thing, you don't want to come back out here dragging that leg around, and I definitely don't feel like I'm doing that."

The former walk-on out of Columbia's Richland Northeast High School returned a fumble 92 yards for a touchdown and also recorded an interception in yesterday's scrimmage as he continues to rebuild his confidence.

Hill has also continued to improve, as he is becoming more comfortable and developing instincts instead of just relying exclusively on his speed to dictate his play.

Francis appears to be the guy here- at least for now. Hill is the better athlete, but Francis has completely recovered from his devastating knee injury and should be the player that starts in defensive backfield on August 30th. Top Stories