Countdown to Camp: Cornerback

In this third of a summer-long series previewing the 2002 Clemson Tigers, we take a detailed look at the cornerbacks. Brian Mance, Kevin Johnson, and a host of others look to improve on last year's dissapointing peformance, while the addition of freshmen Justin Miller and Larrey Williams could also come into play.

Simply put, it's been a long time since the Tigers have had a true shutdown cornerback.

Perhaps you have to go all the way back to Donnell Woolford to find an athlete that could match up with the opposing team's best receiver and feel comfortable about it.

As the Tigers look to resort to more "press" coverage this season, the cornerback position becomes even more critical in this defense. The ability to jam the receiver off the line of scrimmage, as well as shadow him down the field is of primary importance- especially if the Tigers are going to utilize the blitz more this season.

With new defensive coordinator John Lovett on the scene, things are bound to be different in terms of schemes, but is there that one player on defense that can step his game up to give this team a much needed lift?

If there is, that player will likely be Brian Mance.

Mance, who is unquestionably the most talented cornerback returning next season, has another year of significant gameday experience under his belt, and that will likely put him in a leadership role in the eyes of Tommy Bowden. "Brian looks to have a good senior season this year," Bowden said. "This was his first year starting, and I look for him to have more experience and be one of the leaders on defense."

Mance was indeed more of a vocal leader this spring, and because he's generally regarded as the top cover guy for the Tigers, he'll likely be locking up with the opposing team's top receiver this fall. It will be important for Mance to develop that sort of swagger and confidence that has seemingly been missing from his game over the last couple of seasons.

Remember, he was one of the top cornerback prospects in the country coming out of Manning High School back in 1999. He has excellent footwork, fantastic recovery speed, and good field vision, and he's shown all those traits in spurts, he just hasn't done it consistently over the course of a season.

If the case could be made that Mance has shown steady improvement during his career at Clemson, it is also safe to say that Kevin Johnson has yet to show make the same sort of progress.

Johnson was burned badly by J.J. McKelvey and other of the taller receivers all spring long, and unless something changes in a hurry, he could lose his spot to either Ryan Hemby, Toure Francis, or one of the up-and-coming freshmen.

Make no mistake, Johnson is an athlete, and he has talent. But too often he gets down on himself once he makes a mistake and after that, you can basically forget it. He takes himself out of the game mentally and continues to perform at a below average level.

Ryan Hemby just might be a candidate to replace Johnson, should he continue to struggle. Hemby is a pure cover corner, and he has the speed to handle almost anyone downfield. Last season, he brought in a crucial interception at N.C. State, and he also was a big factor in the Tigers holding on to beat Wake Forest.

While averaging almost 25 snaps a game, he brought some stability to a secondary that was seemingly in shambles at various points in the deason. Look for Hemby to see almost twice as many snaps this year at cornerback.

Toure Francis is also another solid cover corner that just needs more gameday experience. The former walk-on from Columbia has made tremendous strides in his short Clemson career, but he has some more work to do if he's going to become a first team peformer.

Francis played in all 12 games last season, recording a season high 6 tackles in the Humanitarian Bowl win over Louisiana Tech. Overall, he made 21 of his 37 tackles over the last four games of the season, which shows you the coaching staff gradually became more comfortable with the former Richland-Northeast star in the game.

In terms of incoming freshmen, both Justin Miller and Larrey "Buddy" Williams could be impact players. Keep in mind it is likely too much to expect either one to start the opening game of the season, but one of these fine athletes could very well crack the two deep before the Tigers play their first 3 games in 2002.

Miller is an athlete that oozes confidence. He loves the spotlight and he seems to have a knack for making the big play. As a senior on defense, he had eight interceptions and 19 passes broken up to go with 48 tackles in 15 games.

Miller is a true cover corner with the ability to lock up even the fastest wide receivers. "I'm like Charles Woodson. You know I'm ready to play," said Miller in an interview with CUTigers back in May.

Buddy Williams, who was one of the top rated cornerbacks out of Florida, also brings an impressive resume to Tiger Town. Williams registered 136 tackles as a senior, and also brought in eight interceptions, two of which he ran back two for touchdowns.

"One of the key factors that aided in my decision to attend Clemson was the opportunity to contribute to the team early," Williams told CUTigers earlier this year. "I feel like I can come and do some things right off the bat."

Either one of these incoming freshmen are as talented as any cornerback currently on the roster, its just a question of how long will it take for them to adjust to the college game.

Jamaal Fudge and Terrance Huey also saw extensive time at cornerback this spring. Huey has the pure speed to be a solid cover corner one day, but he is still a bit undersized and he is still learning the position.

Fudge, who many people have felt could one day be an impact player on this defense, still has some work to do before he takes his game to the next level.

Cornerbacks
SR CB Brian Mance (5-11, 185)
Brian Mance is clearly the most talented cornerback returning in 2002. He has all the athleticism that you'd like to have in a starting cornerback. "I look for him to have more experience and be one of the leaders on defense," said Tommy Bowden. Look for Mance to have a solid year as he consistently matches up with the opposing team's top receiver.
JR* CB Kevin Johnson (6-0, 190)
Kevin Johnson progressed nicely this past spring, but he still has his work cut out for him if he's going to keep his 1st team status come August 31st. He must continue to improve his form tackling, and also learn to keep his focus, even if he has given up a big play.
SO* CB Ryan Hemby (5-10,166)
Ryan Hemby might be the best cover corner on the team. Last season, he brought in a crucial interception at N.C. State, and he also was a big factor in the Tigers holding on to beat Wake Forest. He'll log twice as many snaps this year.
JR* CB Toure Francis (5'11, 184)
Toure Francis will have the opportunity for significant playing this year. A solid cover corner that will need more gameday experience to grow into his role on the team.
FR CB Justin Miller (5-11, 180)
Justin Miller was rated as one of the top defensive backs in the country by most recruiting services last year, and he will have every opportunity to come and compete for a starting spot at cornerback. Miller is noted as a true playmaker that loves the spotlight, and he is a natural leader on and off the football field.
FR CB Larrey Williams (5-11,175)
Larrey Williams might be the most polished cornerback to come into the Clemson program in the last 5 years. A punishing hitter with blazing speed, he'll have the opportunity to contribute right away. Comes from one of the top high school football programs in the country.

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