LeRoy Hill had a strong spring, and appears to be well on his way to living up to the preseason expectations that will be placed on his shoulders later this fall.
Make no mistake about it; a year after claiming first team All-ACC honors, Hill is now the focal point of the Clemson defense.
"It's a bit of an adjustment for me," said Hill referring to his new leadership role on the team. "I'm more of a leader by example type of guy, but I'm learning how to handle this. I'll be alright."
Hill had the luxury of an experienced defensive line to play off of last year. This season however, he'll have to adjust to some new faces up front who will be depended on to clog the running lanes.
With that adjustment, it's important to keep in mind that it may be difficult to duplicate last season's statistics, when he finished with 27 tackles for loss and 8 sacks.
Also keep in mind that Hill has to adjust to the loss of fellow LB John Leake, who played beside him last year.
"People don't realize what John Leake meant to this team," said linebackers' coach David Blackwell. "He did so much for us, and now we've got to find the guy to replace him."
"Leake was crazy," added Hill. "I don't think anybody can take his place. "Those boys (trying to replace him) are doing good though. They worked hard and have competed throughout spring practice. I'm happy with what I've seen from both of them."
Backing up the potential Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC, is David Dunham.
Dunham, who a year ago was looking at the possibility of playing as a fullback, has had his moments in the Clemson defense, but the coaching staff is concerned that a true back-up has yet to step forward.
|Anthony Waters (#40) has earned the respect of his teammates, including fellow linebacker LeRoy Hill this spring.|
The JACK LB is a position that is looking to be filled by one of two players in Anthony Waters and Nick Watkins.
Waters, a redshirt sophomore, and Watkins, a redshirt freshman, are two talented players that figure to bring more athleticism to the table to the Clemson defense this fall.
The only problem concerns their experience. Watkins obviously didn't play a down last year as a redshirt, and Waters played in just 172 total plays. (Compare that to LeRoy Hill's 757 snaps)
"Anthony has the edge right now," said Blackwell in regards to the spring battle between the two players. "I think he saw what Nick was starting to do near the end of spring practice and he really started to come on."
Waters recorded 11 tackles during the second major scrimmage of spring practice back on April 3rd and ultimately never looked back.
On the field, Waters may be a little bigger, but Watkins seems to be the better hitter.
"Anthony can hit," said Blackwell. "That's not an issue with him. However he needs to become a better tackler."
Waters is aware that more responsibility rests on his shoulders this year, and he appears to be ready to step up to the challenge. "I'm the starter now, so that means a lot," said Waters after the spring game. "I did all the work I could this spring to earn that spot, so I'm hoping that goes over well this fall."
Keep in mind that Steven Jackson was also moved over to linebacker from fullback this spring to try and provide some extra depth. Jackson is a natural when it comes to hitting and tackling, however he has much to learn about the Clemson defense before he's turned loose on game day.
|Waters was also named the Most Improved Linebacker of spring practice by the coaching staff.|
The Whip linebacker position looks to be locked and loaded with Eric Sampson returning to start for his senior season.
Backing up Sampson will be Columbia native Tramaine Billie, an athlete with world-class speed that is only starting to come into his own.
"Eric Sampson has looked good," said head coach Tommy Bowden during the last week of spring practice. "He's doing what we've asked of him and is it doing well."
Sampson, who was kicked-off the team in December of 2002 for "conduct unbecoming of a Clemson student-athlete," was re-instated to the team last August and went to record 50 tackles, getting in on 546 total plays.
Sampson is a phenomenal athlete, possessing excellent size and speed for a linebacker. He has the power to take on a punishing running back, and the speed and agility to go step-for-step with some of the fastest players in the ACC in the secondary.
While he's the clear cut start headed into fall practice, he'll be pushed even harder by his counterpart Tramaine Billie.
As a true freshman, Billie saw action in 9 games, getting in on 15 total tackles on 74 plays. This season, with a year of experience under his belt, those numbers stand to increase significantly.
Because he's starting to make plays for the Clemson defense on the practice fields. Coach Bowden called Billie's name on more than occasion this spring, commenting that he's been an improving player throughout the 15-practice sessions.
The loss of John Leake will be much more difficult to overcome than most fans can understand. Leake and Hill developed a nice chemistry both on and off the field last year and it showed in their play.
In addition, the losses of DeJuan Polk, Donnell Washington, and Khaleed Vaughn will also affect this unit.
Hill needs strong play up front to maximize his aggressiveness and pursuit of the ball carrier. The good news is that the defensive line appears to be more athletic, and the unit as a whole began to gel tremendously near the end of spring practice.
That fact alone bodes well for the linebackers, especially a guy like LeRoy Hill who relentlessly attacks the ball carrier as he scrapes off the defensive front four.
Waters and Watkins are two players that are hungry for playing time, and they'll likely spend most of August battling it out for that starting spot against Wake Forest on September 4th.
Competition brings out the best in a football player, and that seems to be the consensus here when Waters and Watkins are talked about by the Clemson coaching staff.
While Waters has established himself as the starter and was also named the Most Improved Linebacker this spring, Watkins will push for playing time this fall. And yes, he has the talent and ability to crack the starting line-up.
At the Whip linebacker, two of the top athletes on the team are poised for big things. Sampson is a vastly underrated playmaker and his back up Tramaine Billie clearly has his best days ahead of him.