Coaching Trips

CLEMSON – While it's the golden arm of junior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst that garners most of the attention whenever the Clemson football team has a successful outing, head coach Tommy Bowden knows that in order for his team to ultimately reach the lofty heights of Atlantic Coast Conference newcomer, Miami, the defense has to carry the team.

From 2002 to 2003, Clemson improved dramatically in the all-important category of scoring defense, from 26.8 to 19.2 points allowed per game. And while that was a good enough mark to place the Tigers 20th in the nation in scoring defense, its highest ranking in six years, it still isn't anywhere close to where Bowden wants it.

Thus, Bowden, defensive line coach Ron West and linebackers coach David Blackwell boarded a plane at that the crack of dawn last Wednesday and flew to Norman, Okla., to watch and learn from the best in the country in scoring defense. They wanted to know what the difference was between their Tigers and the Oklahoma Sooners.

"They've probably been in the top five in the nation in scoring defense the last five years and if you've ever heard me talk, scoring defense is the name of the game," Bowden said.

"So I went to watch a team practice that has accomplished that goal. Is it all players? Is it coaches? Is it scheme? Is it practice organization? So, I talked to their head coach (Bob Stoops), I watched tape and I watched them practice. To me, it's educational. You're always looking for ways to improve."

And what exactly did Bowden learn from those nasty Sooners?

"I'll discuss that with my staff," he said. "Let's just say it was educational. But that's why you go out there for things. I'm looking for intensity at practice. How long do they practice? How hard do they practice? How much hitting do they do? Do they go to the ground on an inside drill or do they stay on their feet? Where are their coaches? How do their coaches position themselves in drills? How hard are their coaches coaching? Do they stand over there and watch? Those are some things that I picked up that I'll be sharing internally."

With the offense seemingly reaching its potential under Bowden, the defense and its ability to consistently stop teams seems to have his main focus. While every area of the team is important, Bowden admittedly is putting a little more emphasis on those 11 guys on defense.

No one has done it better than head coach Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners the last few years. "By me going out there, I think it's showing my team that, ‘Hey, he's trying to find and do everything he can to make us better,'" said Bowden of his trip to Norman.
"Until we accomplish that, we're going to struggle to get to where we want to go," Bowden said. "So that's the goal. We've got to get to the top. We were 20th in scoring defense this year. We've got to get to 15, then we've got to get 10 and then we've got to get to five. You can do whatever you want on offense, but it starts on the other side of the ball. And that's why I went out there. They've been the best in the country the last five years.

"By me going out there, I think it's showing my team that, ‘Hey, he's trying to find and do everything he can to make us better.' If that's what we've got to do, then I'm the head coach and I'm going to go out and study. I owe it to myself if I'm the head coach. I get called out after the Wake Forest game. They didn't ask for anybody else. And that does show more emphasis, there's no doubt. I've tried to emphasize it, but I've never really made this type of trip for this particular purpose."

In 2003, the Clemson defense made great strides on its own as it improved in every major statistical category.

It allowed 19 fewer yards passing per game, nearly 27 fewer yards rushing per game, while increasing by two in tackles for loss per game and by three in quarterback pressures per game.

The type of effort and numbers Bowden wants to see from his defense is what he witnessed from Clemson over the last four games of 2003. During that fabulous stretch, the Tigers allowed just 48 total points and six touchdowns.

And while two of those games came against South Carolina and Duke, two teams that won't be accused of having a "high-octane" brand of offense, the other two were against two nationally ranked teams in Florida State and Tennessee.

Obviously, the Seminoles and Volunteers were down somewhat from previous years, but nonetheless, they still had big-name quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and offensive lineman.

Even so, the Tigers did a stellar job of shutting them down. Now, Bowden just wants to use those performances as a stepping stone for a better defense this season. And to make sure he and his coaches and players are fully prepared, Bowden took that one-day trip to Oklahoma.

But trips like these are nothing new to Bowden or the rest of the Clemson staff.

"I don't get to do it very much," Bowden said. "The assistants get to do it a little more than what I do. I enjoy doing it. I just don't have much time."

"I went to Alabama two years ago and had a visit with (Dennis) Franchione and watched them practice and it was very productive. I got a couple ideas on team unity and some things from Franchione that was helpful: a team picnic and things like that. I also looked at practice organization. You look at drills and how the tempo of practice is run, not so much a pass route. I did not do it last year, but fortunately I had access to the school plane, where I could go out there (to Oklahoma) and get back."

However, just because the defense may have a heightened importance this year, it doesn't mean that the offense is going to be taken for granted. All the assistants have spent time viewing and sharing ideas with other programs.

"Most of them visited with pro teams," Bowden said. "The offensive staff visited Utah, and I think Jack Hines went down to Georgia to talk to their tight end coach. The defensive staff went all over. Some went to the Falcons and some went to other places."

Bowden even took some pointers from the Sooners offense, which had one of the top scoring offenses in the country last year.

"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. We saw some things at Oklahoma, offensively that I liked," Bowden said. "I saw some things offensively that can be productive." Top Stories