Where Does Clemson Football Go From Here?

Nobody will try and pretend that the 2001 football season was what we had hoped for. I, myself, predicted a 9-3 season with a bowl win. Got the bowl win right, was dead wrong on the number of victories. However, it is the direction the program is headed that is more important than one year's worth of games.

Things are never as good as they seem (see pre-Georgia Tech game in 2000), and things are never as bad as they seem (see Homecoming loss to North Carolina in 2001). So, this is my attempt to give a "State Of The Program" breakdown. Keep in mind that this is a pre-spring look at the 2002 Tigers. Spring practice tends to change perceptions in more than one position. And, let's face it, with the youth of this team this spring will be HUGE for many and some will step up…others will not.

The much-ballyhooed rising Junior Willie Simmons appears to be the heir apparent for the starting job heading into the spring. Replacing Woodrow Dantzler will be extremely difficult, but keep in mind you are not trying to replace Woody with an identical-type quarterback. This offense is designed for a mobile, drop-back quarterback. Woody was mobile, but not a drop-back QB. Willie is mobile, albeit not nearly as much as Woody was. But Willie is a true drop-back passer with a phenomenal arm and great football intellect. He will get his chance, and I think we will like what we see. I don't know if he will live up to the expectations that some have placed on him, but the offense appears to be in good hands.

Projection: Willie is not Woody…but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Player To Watch: Charlie Whitehurst (6-4 195, Fr.)

Running Back
Bernard Rambert steps into his senior season as the incumbent, by default, at running back. While Bernard had a great Humanitarian Bowl and is a hard worker, his stock may have jumped a little too high with that performance. Bernard is possibly a better all around running back than Travis Zachery ever was, but is that enough for this offense? The good news is that this position is loaded with Keith Kelly, returning from his redshirt season, stepping in to challenge Rambert. Kelly was very impressive in spurts as a freshman, and will get a hard look in the spring. Chad Jasmin also proved to be a very capable fullback and short yardage running back late in the year.

Projection: We won't be any worse on the field, or off…a position to watch in the spring with bated optimism.

Player To Watch: Kyle Browning (5-9 170, Fr.)

Wide Receivers/Tight End
This is the one position that simply looks scary to opposing schools. With or without the return of Roscoe Crosby, this young and talented receiving core will take a back to seat to nobody in the country…including Florida. The return of Kevin Youngblood adds a go-to guy to Derrick Hamilton, Airese Currie, and J.J. McKelvey. Add Jackie Robinson and Joe Don Reames in for depth and this is going to be, by far, the best collection of receivers in the history of Clemson football. If there is any team in the country that has a pair of tight ends with more potential than Ben Hall and Todd McClinton, I sure would like to see them. Because of the talent at tight end, I still like the idea of finding a place for McClinton to play on the defensive side of the ball.

Projection: Even better than the real thing…just get them the damn ball.

Player To Watch: Airese Currie (5-11 175, So.) Offensive Line
This seems to be the one area of major concern on offense heading into the 2002 season, and rightfully so. While T.J. Watkins and Will Merritt will be missed, they were not a life or death loss. Losing Akil Smith to the prison system and Will Young to graduation will hurt like a knife to the heart. Finding a center will be the number one priority for sure. There is talent on the offensive line with Greg Walker, Cedric Johnson, Nick Black, and Derrick Brantley. How much talent? That could be the difference in a 7 win season and a 9 win season.

Projection:Focus your attention in the spring right here…and pray for no injuries.

Player To Watch: Eric Coleman (6-5 270, So.)

Defensive Line
The much-maligned defensive line is about to gain respect. Nick Eason will anchor, and lead, the defensive line in 2002. Bryant McNeal, Khaleed Vaughn, and DeJuan Polk add another year of experience to their belt loops. But the bubbling excitement with this unit is found in the group of rising sophomores and redshirt freshman that the staff and recruiting gurus are all high on. Donnell Washington, Mo Fountain, Charles Bennett, Trey Tate, Mark Jetton, and Rod Whipple seem to be the type of defensive lineman that can pressure quarterbacks and stuff the run. The coaching staff also is looking at several JUCO's, and possibly offensive players such as Todd McClinton to create a solid defensive line. Are the days of dominating defense lines back in Tiger Town? Probably not yet, but this group is going to be pretty darn good.

Projection: You will be pleasantly surprised…and it is about time!

Player To Watch: Donnell Washington (6-6 320, So.)

If the Tiger defense struggles in 2002, it will not be because of the linebackers. John Leake slowly (a little too slowly for some) turned into a very good linebacker for the Tigers in 2001. Rodney Thomas also showed signs of playmaking ability, especially towards the end of the season. But like the defensive line, the excitement lies with the sophomores and redshirt freshman. Eric Sampson, and Leroy Hill both got valuable snaps during the 2001 season and both project to be excellent Tiger linebackers. The additions of newly signed Kelvin Morris and Brandon Jamison offer either quality depth…or great starters…depending on how well they adjust to Division I football.

Projection: Good, and maybe very good…speed kills and these guys have speed.

Player To Watch: Eric Sampson (6-3 205, So.)

Uggg…do we have to talk about it? I guess we do. The problems with the secondary derived from coaching, talent, experience, and play calling. Evidently, the coaching is not going to change (no offense Mr. Hines). The talent should improve with Tavaghn Monts, Curtis Baham, David Dunham and Jamall Fudge stepping into the limelight. But with that talent stepping in, the loss of experience will hurt…especially the loss of Charles Hafley. And who knows what kind of players Brian Mance, Eric Meekins, and Kevin Johnson are with the way they played in 2001. To be quite honest, this position is tough to call. There are some solid players here with the above, and don't forget to throw in Charles Harper, Ronnie Delusme, Travis Pugh, Toure Francis, and Ryan Hemby. I think the keys lie with the return of Marcus Houskin at free safety and the eminent move of Altroy Brodrick to strong safety. If Houskin and Brodrick step up, there could be improvement in the secondary. Lord, let's hope so.

Projection: Could it be any worse than 2001?…I don't think so.

Player To Watch: Altroy Brodrick (6-1 215, Sr.)

Aaron Hunt had a steady, if unspectacular sophomore season in Clemson. The good news is the days of worrying about extra points are gone. Hunt's leg strength reportedly got better as the year went on, although he was never put to the test from 50+ late in the year. I won't lose any sleep over this position, although I wish we could find a kicker that could kick the ball into the end zone on kickoffs at least 50% of the time.

Was it just me, or did Wynn Kopp kick 35 yard punts when he had the whole field in front of him and 60 yard punts that flew 8 yards deep into the end zone when we needed a pooch kick? The leg strength is there, the technique needs some work.

Projection: Solid, if unspectacular group…but nowhere near as bad as 3 years ago.

Player To Watch: Any signees from the 2002 recruiting class.

I still think this staff is one of the best in the ACC, although this year would not be the kind of stuff you would use to stuff resumes. The offensive staff is very good if they could just get over the occasional games where they get too conservative. Obviously, Coach Bowden has had to eat a little humble pie this year, and you can see he has done so on multiple occasions. Again, a little welcome back to reality was in order for Bowden, who for the first time in his head coaching career, took a step backwards. Brad Scott and Mike O'Cain were sometimes great with their play calling, and sometimes way too conservative. Much of that may be attributed to riding the Woody Danztler horse to its death, and the young receivers that showed their youth at times with butterfingers. Rick Stockstill is still the most under-rated member of the staff for his contributions as recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach. Defensively, I like the call to not give the ax to Reggie Herring. I know many have wanted his bald heading on the chopping block for 2 years straight, but he deserves a chance to bring the defense back to its late-80's dominance. Jack Hines, to, has been under fire for his work with the defensive backs. Again, the criticism is well founded, but that does not necessarily mean that they should have to walk the plank. A little re-structuring within the staff would make me happy, but the bottom line is that if you trust Tommy Bowden to be your head coach, then you have to trust him to surround himself with the best possible people.

Projection: Spring will be crucial to both sides…especially the defense.

Coach To Watch: What position Jack Hines will spend spring coaching is a question mark.

12 regular season games litter the calendar in 2002. Trips to Athens, Charlottesville, Chapel Hill, and Talahassee offer tough challenges. The Tigers, however, played better on the road than at home in 2001…something that you would like to see carry over in 2002. Tough home games with Georgia Tech, NC State, Maryland, Wake Forest, and South Carolina offer a fun home schedule.

Very early prognostications have Georgia, Florida State, and Wake Forest being better football teams than they were in 2001. Georgia Tech, Maryland, and South Carolina should all take a step backward with their many personnel losses at key positions. And big question marks about NC State, Virginia, and North Carolina makes the ACC a tough pick before spring practice completes.

Projection: WAY too early to say this, but underdogs versus UGA and FSU. Probable favorites versus Louisiana Tech, Ball State, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest. Probable toss ups against NC State, Virginia, UNC, Maryland and South Carolina.

Game To Watch: Opening day in Athens versus the Georgia Bulldogs.

One thing is for certain, as soon as the college football year ends, you start looking forward to the beginning of the next one. And we should be excited about the 2002 Clemson Tiger football team.

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