As a fan, if you attended any of Tigers' home games last year, you could hear the inevitable groan from the crowd all the way from the concession stands once a deep pass was in the air. It just seemed like all those long balls were always caught big yardage against this defense.
The statistical rankings in the ACC from a year ago tell the same story. Overall, the Tigers were:
7th in Total Defense
7th in Rushing Defense
4th in Passing Defense
8th in Scoring Defense
7th in First Downs Allowed
7th in 3rd Down Conversions (44%)
In most of those categories, it would be a serious set back if there weren't some kind improvement this year. And while last season was a huge disappointment in the eyes of many, there are many reasons to think that the Tigers' secondary (and defense as a whole) could improve dramatically in 2002.
Aside from general personel changes, most experts have pegged the arrival of defensive coordinator John Lovett as the one of the biggest reasons to expect significant improvement. Lovett joined the Tigers early this winter, just in time to prepare for spring practice.
"The biggest thing we needed to get done was for John to learn the players and staff and come up with the proper scheme," Tommy Bowden said after the Orange and White game in early April. "And we feel good about what was accomplished this spring."
Lovett, who most recently was the defensive coordinator at Auburn, has also taken over for Jack Hines as the new coach of the secondary. And one his first orders of business upon arriving at Clemson was to instill a new attacking philosophy in his defensive backs. Lovett preaches physical, aggressive play, and several players have already benefited from his style.
Eric Meekins is one player that certainly falls into that category. After a very average season last year, Meekins stepped up his play tremendously during the spring. "Eric Meekins had a good spring. He was a much better tackler and showed consistency that I hadn't seen," said Tommy Bowden.
Meekins came away with several leaping interceptions and batted balls over the course of three scrimmages this past spring, and just as important, he began to look more like a physical football player. Meekins seemed to hit with a more punishing style, as he laid out players like Airese Currie and Jackie Robinson coming across the middle of the field with regularity.
He also was much more discipline, not taking any plays off during the Orange and White game, and staying with his receiver downfield even when it appeared the play was going the opposite way. His work ethic has improved, and his focus has been unmatched since Lovett has taken control of the defense. Add all of that up, and it equals your starting free safety come August 31st in Athens.
Backing up Meekins will likely be Travis Pugh. Pugh registered 7 tackles in the final scrimmage this spring, and he was solid across all phases of the game. "Travis Pugh was a heavily recruited safety, and he'll have the chance to play alot more this year," said Tommy Bowden.
Pugh has good size for a safety, and may even be a better athlete than Meekins, but his inexperience may force Lovett to go with the senior for a majority of the snaps.
One thing that is important to point out about Pugh is that he always is around the ball. Both him and Ronny Delusme seem to anticipate the play better and react faster than some of the other defensive backs, and may give him the edge over someone like Tavaghn Monts.
Monts is another candidate to see some action behind Meekins. He didn't really do anything to stand out this spring, and his playing time may be limited as a result. Pay attention to his peformance in early August, that will likely dictate the amount playing time he receives this year.
At rover, Altroy Brodrick looks to return to action after missing the entire season last year when he tore his ACL in a preseason scrimmage. Brodrick is the wildcard on defense- simply because he hasn't seen any live action in over a year.
He was held out of all the scrimmages this past spring, but he did see time in alot of the non-contact drills, and seemed to move very well for suffering such a serious injury only 6 months before.
Once thought of as a linebacker, Brodrick will likely be used as a strong safety this fall. "We will probably look at him at safety I believe, we are bit thin back there." said Tommy Bowden.
The good news is that Brodrick has as much athleticism as any player on the Tigers' roster, and assuming he is full strength, good things are going to happen with him playing at rover. Brodrick provides ample run support, and he also has the speed to stay with any receiver in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Assuming he is able to come back completely healthy, Ronny Delusme will back up Brodrick.
Delusme has made significant progress on and off the field this year, being named the most improved player in the weight room among defensive backs by the strength staff. He played in all 12 games last season, registering 10 tackles, with most of those coming on special teams.
Delusme had a solid spring- showing great athleticism and good decision making. He also seems to react a little faster than some of the other defensive backs. Much like Pugh, Delusme is a "ball-hawk" and he usually able to anticipate where the play is going before some of the other guys on defense. Based on that, and the fact that he appears physically ready to contribute more, you can count on him playing a significant role in the Tigers' secondary this season.