Red Zone Production a Concern?

There's no question that as the 2003 season passed game-by-game, Charlie Whitehurst became a much better quarterback. And nowhere was that more evident than when he was forced to call plays from within the opponents' 20-yard line, which is better known as the red zone.

Through the first half of last season, Whitehurst, then a sophomore, admitted to making poor decisions by trying to force passes into tight coverage. But as the season grew closer to the end, Whitehurst and company became pretty efficient in crossing the goal line from in close.

"I think when you get in there close, it's harder to score," Whitehurst said. "You don't want to force the ball, but it looks like you are. Throws definitely become harder. I don't know why it was easier to score at the end. Maybe it was different play calls, I'm not sure. I think maybe our package evolved and became better.

"Interceptions were an issue last year, and I think I've gotten over them. With the defensive backs, there's no threat to go over their heads with a deep touchdown. Everything is in front of them and they see the field and can break on balls, so it just makes it tougher. Then a lot of teams, once you get in there, that will blitz you."

Everyone's hoping so. Even though the offense improved toward the end of the year, the season-ending statistics from inside the red zone were anything but average.

Clemson got inside the red zone 47 times last year, and only scored 26 touchdowns, for a percentage of 55.3. Only three teams in the ACC, Florida State (53.8), Duke (48.8) and Georgia Tech (39.4), had a lower success rate of scoring touchdowns when inside the 20.

"I don't think that probably anybody understands how hard it is to score down there unless you've been involved in football," Tigers offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain said.

"I think they hear that on TV, but understanding why is much different. If you're on the 50, you've got 11 people on defense that has to cover roughly 50 yards wide and 60 yards deep. Then you get at the 10 and all of a sudden you're 20 yards deep, so those 11 players are much more compacted into that small zone.

"That means the zones to throw the ball are a lot more restricted. And to even run the football is much more different. At the 50, the safties are 10 yards deep and having to support the run. At the 10, now they're five and six yards deep to support the run. It gets much tougher to score down there. That's why I think running the football is crucial, because you're passing game becomes limited.

"I had conversations with the coaches last year that the package in the red zone needed to evolve, and it did," Whitehurst said.
"That's why you hear people say you've got to be able to run the football, and I believe that. You'll have a hard time scoring consistently throwing the ball in the red zone. I believe you've got to be able to run the football down there because the field does get restricted."

All those issues seemed to come together last year for the Tigers by season's end. A lot of that, however, was a direct result of Whitehurst growing as a player. And with that, the coaches grew more confident in him and the offense.

"I had conversations with the coaches last year that the package in the red zone needed to evolve, and it did," Whitehurst said. "I don't think we ran the ball all that well last year in the red zone, so it's hard to score.

"There's just more options down there this year than there was last year. It's just evolved. I think there's a little bit more confidence in me a year later, where they feel comfortable asking me to do more things. Again, I'm not saying anything bad or negative about the play calling. I just think they're more comfortable with me and the rest of the players."

O'Cain admits that with Whitehurst's growth came a larger variety of plays that the coaches felt he could handle.

"I think the season is a process," O'Cain said. "Every game you learn a little bit more about yourself. And it's not only for players, but it's also for coaches. We learn more about our players with the things they can and can't do.

"I've been on certain teams where we may run a particular play and we may run it real well the year before, but it doesn't mean that you're going to run it well the next year, because you're talent level changes. And I think that's what happened. We learned things that we could do and things we couldn't do. Some things we threw out and some things we added.

"The couple of things we did was we asked Charlie to become a little bit more of a ball carrier back up the field and that kept the defense a little bit more honest. Then we added a couple of new routes that we got matched up right."

Now, Whitehurst is fully confident that the Tigers can match or surpass Maryland and Wake Forest's touchdown percentage of 66.7 in the red zone. But should the struggles continue, he believes there will still be plenty of points scored.

"Three points down there isn't bad at all," Whitehurst said. "Let's try and score a touchdown every time, but if we settle for three every time, then I think we'll probably score a few points. But touchdowns are definitely the goal."

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