Defense Holds Key to Season

Make no mistake about it, the Tigers' defense holds the key to the upcoming season. After finishing last year near the bottom of the conference in nearly every statistical category, it will be up defensive coordinator John Lovett and a strong mix of new and returning talent to right the ship.

Defensively, the Tigers were just plain awful last year. Anyone who follows football or can read statistics could tell you that. Lapses in the secondary, a non existent pass rush, and missed assignments were the name of the game in 2001.

Fortunately, this season brings in a renewed sense of optimism with new defensive coordinator John Lovett at the helm. And why not? It seems almost impossible to repeat last year's performance when the Tigers' finished next to last in scoring defense and no better than seventh in almost every other major defensive category.

After all, any sort of fall off on defense would put the Tigers dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference; at least statistically speaking.

The good news in 2002 is that Clemson will return twice as many starters as they did just one year ago, and if anything, having a year of experience under their belt should make all the difference in the world.

"It's hard sometimes for a guy who's inexperienced or does not really understand the expectations to compete at the same level every week," John Lovett said yesterday.

"Sometimes they play lights out, or sometimes their minds drift or their bodies give out. They've gotten mentally tougher and physically stronger this year. I attribute a lot of that to guys growing up."

Lovett knows he has talent at Clemson, there really hasn't been any question about that. What he can do with that talent will likely be the difference between a 7-5 and 9-3 season. Already, he has proven his worth in eyes of some of the top players returning this season.

"Coach Lovett has us in the best possible situation on every play. Everybody is smarter," said cornerback Brian Mance.

"You look at alignment, the receivers and where he lines up, and you can kind of anticipate his route. You have more help than you had last year. You don't have to worry about covering 30 routes. You can guess on three or four now. It's totally different."

Lovett has put his players in the best position possible to make plays, and you can bet that will help the Tigers improve on their 101st ranking in takeaways from a year ago.

Aside from formations and schemes, Lovett is also going to have some additional talent at his disposal. Namely JUCO transfers Brandon Jamsion, Vontrell Jamison, Kelvin Morris, and true freshman Justin Miller.

"When you bring in a JUCO, you're hoping that they can come in and be impact players right away," Lovett said. "Brandon and Kelvin have done just that. They're going to get significant playing time this season," said Lovett.

Miller will also have his shot. "At our last scrimmage, Justin really came on and started to be much more consistent. He's got a chance to make an impact this season."

And then there is the return of roverback Altroy Bodrick, who is widely regarded as the most athletic player on the team. Bodrick has consistently demonstrated that he is close to 100% after suffering a torn ACL last year, and his return should help provide some much needed stability in the secondary.

While the defense overall appears to be much more fundamentally sound and confident, there also seems to be another advantage this unit will have entering the season opener at Georgia: playmakers.

For the first time in a long time, Clemson has one or two guys on the defensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary that change the outcome of the game with a big play.

And that will be critical for the success of this team this year. If players like Nick Eason, John Leake, and Brian Mance are able to assume leadership roles by making big plays and forcing turnovers, this defense will be leaps and bounds better in 2002.

Depth is also another luxury the Tigers will have this season- especially up front and at linebacker. "Right now, I feel good about our guys up front. They may have the most potential of any unit we've got right now," said Lovett.

If you don't think that depth is important, just ask former defensive coordinator Reggie Herring. "I feel fine about the first 11," Herring said entering the 2001 season.

"The question is going to be depth. If we sustain injuries, we don't have the quality players behind them." We all saw the results last year, and we all know where Reggie Herring is today.

This season that shouldn't be a problem, as the Tigers return 8 starters on defense, with quality depth behind each one of those positions.

Make no mistake about it, the talent level is there, the depth is there, and experience is there. The Tigers just have to figure out a way to combine it all into a finished product on the field, which of course, is easier said than done.

"We're not going to be afraid," said John Leake. "We're going to take gambles and we're going to make plays out there. We'll be a lot better."

Only 8 more days until we know for sure. Top Stories