Spring Ball Preview: Cornerback

We continue to preview spring practice with an in-depth look at the two-deep depth chart at cornerback. Justin Miller and Tye Hill are locked down as the starters, but who will serve as their primary back-ups on the second team?

The Clemson secondary continued to improve under second year defensive coordinator John Lovett in 2003. Overall, the Tigers ranked second in the league in defending the pass, giving up an average of just 189 yards per game.

Sophomore Justin Miller had just 2 interceptions last season after tying a Clemson record with 8 the year before, but overall his play was instrumental in the Tigers season ending 4-game winning streak.

"My sophomore year could have gone either way really," said Miller. "I'm not frustrated with how my season went or anything, I played well and did the things I was supposed to do. I made plays when we needed it, and I feel good about last year overall and the team."

Even though Miller did give up a few deep balls against Georgia and N.C. State, his play earned him a spot on the honorable mention All-ACC team. Overall, he finished the year with 54 total tackles, 2 interceptions, and 13 passes broken up.

"He's a great player," said Lovett. "And he will have a great career here, and I'm sure he will play on Sundays some day. He grew up a lot this past season and paid his dues."

Starting opposite Miller, and returning this spring on the left side at cornerback, will be junior Tye Hill.

Hill emerged as the starter last year and brought in a big interception that helped set the tone in a 26-10 win over #3 Florida State. He finished the year with 37 total tackles to go along with 1 sack, 2 interceptions, and 7 passes broken up.

Interestingly enough, it was just one year ago that the coaching staff took a chance and moved Hill over to defense from running back.

The spotlight will be on sophomore CB Sergio Gilliam this spring has he aims for more playing time behind Justin Miller and Tye Hill.
"I have no regrets about making the switch," said Hill. "I may not be as tall as other guys, but I can go up and jump with anyone. Fortunately, I have that ability."

Hill is also a standout track performer and is considered to be one of the fastest players in the league. That speed, coupled with 11 starts, makes him an integral part of the defensive equation this year.

On paper, one could easily make the argument that the Miller-Hill combination gives the Tigers two of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the ACC in 2004.

Miller has excellent size and speed, and has seemingly learned a lot since his freshman year, while Hill is one of the fastest guys in the country and has appeared to develop sound instincts on the defensive side of the ball.

But as far as back-ups are concerned, there are more questions than answers headed into spring ball, especially with the loss of Buddy Williams and Toure Francis.

As it stands now, the two players that figure to enter into the mix are sophomore Sergio Gilliam and redshirt freshman Robert Reese.

Gilliam saw his redshirt yanked in the 7th game last year and ended up getting in on 36 plays, recording 4 tackles.

"Surge is a big tall kid that runs good," said Lovett. "It's hard to get away from a kid like that because he can recover quickly. I think he's going to fine. It's just a situation where we thought he could help us out last year and give us support at cornerback."

The former Greer star figures to be in the spotlight this spring, as he is the lone player outside of Miller and Hill at cornerback with any sort of game day experience.

Reese is somewhat of a wildcard, but linebackers' coach David Blackwell has had some very positive things to say about his athleticism after watching him on the scout team last year.

"We like having those guys that have played quarterback before on defense," said Blackwell. "They are used to having the ball in their hands and they are usually good athletes with a lot of skills."

As long as Miller and Hill stay healthy, the outlook in the Clemson secondary looks outstanding. Both players have shown the ability to cover some of the best receivers in the country, and both bring outstanding athleticism and speed to the table.

This spring however, it will be critical to establish the confidence of both Gilliam and Reese in back-up roles.

It was clear last year that the coaching staff had more confidence in Toure Francis, instead of Gilliam, as he served as a back up to both Hill and Miller most of the season.

This year, those responsibilities will likely fall squarely on Gilliam's shoulders, and it will be up to him to step up and provide support.

And that's just one more reason why spring practice is so important. Grooming younger players and establishing depth helps pave the way for wins down the road on a schedule that appears to be getting more difficult year in and year out.

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