What a Difference a Year Makes (Part IV)

This spring, seven returning starters from the 2003 defense made their way to the practice fields, which was a big difference from just a year ago when defensive coordinator John Lovett had to do almost the exact opposite.

Today we compare the concerns at linebacker and defensive back from this spring to that of a year ago.

Spring 2003 – Tiger fans didn't have to look past the starting line-up at linebacker to see that this unit had serious issues. For example, the starting three included a guy who was largely considered "not aggressive enough," a walk-on, and a 210-pound middle linebacker. A lot of Clemson fans even started listing incoming freshmen Maurice Nelson as the starter before he had even set foot on campus.

What should have been a solid unit after the 2002 season quickly turned in the other direction.

Starting whip linebacker Eric Sampson was dismissed from the team after 2002's final game. Kelvin Morris and Brandon Jamison where then declared ineligible as a result of his academics.

That left a walk-on in Lionel Richardson at whip, John Leake, who was criticized for his lack of aggression at Tack linebacker, and an undersized LeRoy Hill who had only been seen as a special teams standout at Mike Linebacker.

Spring 2004- That undersized middle linebacker from a year ago is now a preseason All-American candidate. All Leroy Hill did in 2004 was quiet his critics to the tune of 145 tackles, 8 sacks and a mind-boggling 27 tackles for loss.

Also returning to the starting lineup will be Eric Sampson. This time Sampson has the benefit of being with the team throughout the spring and summer.

All Leroy Hill did in 2004 was quiet his critics to the tune of 145 tackles, 8 sacks and a mind-boggling 27 tackles for loss.
At Mike linebacker, Clemson loses three-year starter John Leake. Anthony Waters and Nick Watkins battled for the starting position this spring. Although both are athletic and talented, the coaching staff felt as though the leadership that Leake provided was the biggest thing missing from this unit.

Nevertheless, Waters came on strong the last two weeks of practice, and it became easy to see that this is the best the Tigers have looked at linebacker since Bowden's first season in 1999.

Defensive Backs
Spring 2003 – As bad as things looked at linebacker, it was the defensive backfield that created the most concern as the Tigers had lost three starters from the year before.

The best news was that the one returning starter was then freshmen turned Clemson icon Justin Miller. Miller was coming off a season where he tied the all-time Clemson interception record. He continued to dazzle in the spring, which left Clemson fans talking throughout the summer of how Miller could be the best defensive back ever to play in Death Valley.

Across the field from Miller, was running back turned corner, Tye Hill. Clemson fans admired Hill's enthusiasm for playing the new position, but could not help getting dizzy watching him get turned around time and time again during practice. Fans soon realized that Hill might be their only hope as Toure Francis nursed a torn ACL on the sideline and rumors rang out that JUCO All American corner Brian Staley would not be enrolling in the fall as initially thought.

At the safety positions the news was little better. Even though Jamaal Fudge had a productive spring, fans waited for someone to step up and knock the undersized former cornerback out of the starting position.

At the other safety spot, Travis Pugh and Tavaghn Monts both had good springs, giving Tiger fans something to be optimistic about.

Spring 2004 – The defensive backfield was the same as a year ago, only this time the microscope was not on this group as each starter proved his worth during the 2003 season.

Believe or not, it is actually Miller who is receiving the most criticism last season. Some spectators do not like the brash, sometimes cocky, Miller. But after being criticized by coach Tommy Bowden for his lack of production early in the spring, Miller turned the intensity level up a notch and showed Tiger fans why he has the potential to be an All-ACC selection in 2004.

In fact, with the pressure that the defensive ends put on the quarterbacks this spring, Clemson fans expect production to go up considerably from this talented group. This is an expectation that starting corner Tye Hill echoed when he said, "We plan to be one of the best in the nation." Most Tiger fans might not agree that this unit is the best in the nation, but it has the chance to challenge Miami for the best unit in the ACC.

When looking at the defense as a whole, there is no doubting the skill and talent level upgrade at linebacker and defensive back, however there is still legitimate concern about the defensive line.

Although 2003's defensive front had less questions coming out of the spring, the 2004 version has a ton of talent and the ability to match the previous year's group in production. If this happens, it could be the difference between a solid Clemson team and a team that contends for the ACC title.

CUTigers.com Top Stories