Most Clemson fans went into the 2003 season expecting an improvement over 2002…which means at least 8 wins in the regular season and no blowouts. The Georgia game offered up a pretty good pasting, despite the fact that the score was 16-0 in the 4th quarter. Most Tiger fans don't care. It was ugly and it hurt. But the wins over Middle Tennessee State and Georgia Tech are quality wins, if not spectacular ones. The manner in which Clemson was able to defeat both of those teams is impressive, even if actually getting a win would not have turned heads.
The path to 8 wins is still on track. But, before we break down the rest of the season, allow me to offer you my opinions position by position to this point.
The Georgia game plan was bad, and the execution was worse. Give Georgia credit for that, but a big fat F went to the coaching staff that had 6 months to prepare for that big game.
Since then, the coaching has improved weekly. The play calling has been much better, especially in the Middle Tennessee State and Georgia Tech games. The aggressive style seems to fit our offense and defense, and I would expect we will continue to see more of the same as the season rolls along.
Dabo Swinney and David Blackwell have proven to be good hires as both of their units are performing at a higher level than in 2002. Still plenty of time to change, but to this point the coaching has been good minus the glaring ineptitude of the season opener.
Charlie Whitehurst is putting up the kind of numbers that make the eyes bulge. Whitehurst is 88-130 (68%) for 1048 yards and 9 touchdowns with only 3 interceptions. His 262 yards per game average throwing the ball puts him only behind Philip Rivers of N.C. State. Whitehurst has a gaudy 153.6 passing efficiency rating, which again only trails Rivers of N.C. State.
His decision making has been sound, and he has developed a better ability to elude the pass rush. His pocket presence has improved 100% since the Texas Tech game in Orlando. And he seems to be a leader on the field.
The lack of play by Yusef Kelly is heartbreaking to me. I had penciled in Kelly to be the leader at running back while showing the way for the younger players. Kelly has only one carry on the year, and the verdict is still out on whether he will see significant time the rest of the season.
Duane Coleman has emerged as the work horse for this "running back by committee". Coleman has gained 203 yards on the season, which would only equate to 600 yards at the end of the year. Add Kyle Browning's 100 yards on the season, and Clemson still is on pace to not have their top 2 running backs combine for 1,000 yards this season. This is not a good sign…regardless of the passing wizardry that Whitehurst provides.
The good news is that Coleman, Browning, and Reggie Merriweather seem to be improving each week. But, despite Coleman's touchdown run against a winded Georgia Tech defense last Saturday, we still have not seen the big play ability from a running back on a weekly basis.
Dabo Swinney looks like a God-send after 4 games at Clemson. The Tiger wide receivers have been a different unit than we have seen the past few years since signing that highly acclaimed class.
That improvement starts with Airese Currie (26 receptions for 339 and 3 TD's) who has seemingly overnight developed into Clemson's big play receiver. Currie is 2nd in the ACC in receptions per game and he is 3rd in receiving yards per game.
Derrick Hamilton leads the ACC in all purpose yards with 126.8 yards a game. Hamilton (19 receptions for 263 yards and 2 touchdowns) ranks 9th in the ACC in receptions per game and receiving yards per game.
Kevin Youngblood (23 catches for 274 yards and 1 TD) has also been dependable through the first 4 games. The senior from Jacksonville ranks 4th in the ACC in receptions per game and 8th in receiving yards per game.
Clemson is the only team in the league to have 3 players in the top 10 in both yards receiving per game and receptions per game…a tribute to Coach Swinney and the more daring play calling by Tommy Bowden.
The offensive line has showed improvement in some areas while still struggling in others. The Tigers still cannot seem to control the line of scrimmage enough to run the ball consistently. Clemson is 6th in the ACC in rushing yards per game, averaging 120.0 yards.
Improvement has taken place, however, in pass protection. Clemson has only given up 6 sacks on the year, which equates to only 2 per game. That is an acceptable number by itself, but the bottom line is that Whitehurst has had time to throw the ball in almost every game…including Georgia. Those 6 sacks places Clemson 5th in the ACC in sacks given up and AHEAD of N.C. State and Maryland in that category.
Improvement is still needed, especially in the running game. But, the truth be told to this point, the offensive line is doing about as good as most of us had hoped.
The Tiger defensive line has had a few ups and downs to the start of the 2003 season. Clemson's rank 6th in the ACC in rushing yards given up, a pretty good indicator of how the defensive line is playing up front. That improved against Georgia Tech last weekend, but the jury is still defiantly out in terms of run defense.
Clemson ranks 2nd in the ACC in sacks, trailing only Florida State. Khaleed Vaughn and J.J. Howard are tied for 8th in the league in total sacks with two apiece.
Against the pass, the Clemson defensive line has played well. That is especially true in terms of the amount of pressure the defensive line has been able to produce without linebacker blitzes. But, as said earlier, the run defense needs to be shored up if this unit is going to have a great year…or just a good year. However, this defensive front is playing more like Tarzan and less like Jane so far this year. Shore up the run, and things will look bright!
Leroy Hill has stepped up to be a legitimate force at the linebacker position. Hill is tied for the league lead in sacks (4) and Hill leads the league by himself in tackles for a loss (10). Hill is 4th in the ACC in total tackles at 49, which is a blistering 12 tackles per game.
John Leake has also been steady, ranking 7th in the league in total tackles with 43. Eric Sampson's return after his spring debacle has helped bolster the unit overall, which has become a strength of the defense.
Anthony Waters has also stepped in and proven that he is going to be a great linebacker at Clemson as he matures. Waters is 7th on the team in tackles with 17, despite a limited number of snaps compared to Leake and Hill.
While the play of Justin Miller has been below expectations, let us also realize that his expectations were a little too high to begin with. Miller has yet to intercept a ball, although he ranks 5th in the ACC in passes broken up.
The rest of the group, however, receives high marks. Toure Francis has separated himself a little from Tye Hill. Francis has 4 pass break ups to go with his 14 tackles. More importantly, he has kept the ball in front of him the entire year.
After getting burnt against Georgia on a pass that Georgia dropped, Tye Hill has played solid, if not spectacular. Hill has one sack on the year to go along with his one pass break up.
But the biggest surprise in the secondary has been the play of the safeties. Jamaal Fudge (33 tackles and 2 pass break ups) and Travis Pugh (30 tackles, 3 pass break ups, and 1 interception) have both been much better than advertised early on. Plenty of challenges lie ahead for this secondary, but the results thus far have been encouraging.
Aaron Hunt is off to a shaky start (2 for 5 in field goal attempts and a missed extra point) even though he was asked to kick 50+ yard field goals against Georgia and Furman, which is out of his range to begin with.
The hype surrounding Jad Dean a week into practice has fizzled a little as well. Although Dean kicks a high ball that gives the special teams plenty of time to get downfield, the depth we all thought he processed has yet to manifest itself consistently.
Cole Chason has eased many concerns in the kicking game in his first 4 games. Despite dropping a punt versus Furman, Chason has been solid with his length and hang time in the first four games.
Chason is averaging 39.8 yards a punt with 5 kicks inside the 20. His net average of 37.6 yards a punt with returns ranks him at 5th in the ACC.
Punt returns have not been good, as Clemson has only averaged 3 yards a return so far this year. Normally, I would think this would be an area of concern, but I think it may be just an fluke.
The reason I think it is a fluke is because the same players are returning kickoffs, with much more success. Derrick Hamilton's 31.5 yards a return on kickoffs is good enough for 2nd in the ACC. Justin Miller is right behind him in 3rd, averaging 39.4 yards a return.
The biggest positive in the return game, though, has to be in the coverage units. The Clemson kickoff coverage unit, abysmal in 2002, is 2nd in the league averaging only 17.8 yards a return. This type of play a year ago may have prevented losses in Athens and Tallahassee, but why cry of spilled milk!
4 Games- What We've Learned
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