A Safety the Tigers Need to be Tough

CLEMSON - During his senior season at Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro, S.C., Darius Gaither earned First-Team All-State honors from The State (Columbia, S.C.) newspaper and was a Shrine Bowl selection.

He was also tabbed by Scout.com as the 35th best safety in the nation, while collegefootballnews.com listed him as the 21st best safety.

So you might be asking, what is so special about that? A lot of young men who go on to play Division I college football have those kinds of accolades. But do a lot of young men get those accolades when they miss more than half of their senior season with a high-ankle sprain.

"He is a guy we believe has some skills, but we have to find the best place for those skills to be used," Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.

Those skills allowed Gaither to put up some big numbers as a high school junior. The former Griffin had 87 tackles as a junior with 16 pass broken up and seven interceptions. He also had four punt returns for scores and even set the state record for the longest interception return (108 yards) for a touchdown.

Gaither, though there was some talk about moving him to linebacker, might be just what the doctored ordered for a Clemson secondary that needs all the bodies it can find. With position moves, early entries into the draft, transfers and graduation, the Tigers are already down six people on the depth chart.

"It is a little early to predetermine, but we have to just find a place for him to play," Koenning said. "Right now, you have to consider Ray Ray (McElrathbey) going to offense. You have Roy Walker, Brandon Croley both transferring and then C.J. (Gaddis), Duane (Coleman) and Sergio (Gilliam) leaving.

"That makes six (defensive backs) that we are not going to have in the secondary. Right now in recruiting we did not anticipate that. Early on we thought we might take a couple of defensive backs, but to just go out and take somebody, we are hesitant to do that just to get anybody.

"If there is somebody out there that we think can come in here and play then obviously we are going to try to attract them here this last week. We do need some help in the secondary and I can't afford to move Darius Gaither to linebacker or anything right now with the numbers that we have in the secondary."

Though Gaither possesses solid skills, there are a few things he has to work on. The first is his weight. Since enrolling at Clemson last summer, the redshirt freshman has put on nearly 25 pounds, going from 195 to 215 on his 6-foot frame.

"He has to get in shape. He has a ways to go," Koenning said. "I don't want to prejudge his athletic skills based on the fact he gained 25 pounds since the time we signed him. He really blew up pretty good… He reported back after the Christmas Holidays at a good 217 or something. So let him go through the off season, let him go through the mat drills and stuff, and we will evaluate him at that time."

Koenning believes Gaither's weight gain has hampered him somewhat, but he isn't going to hold that against him right now.

"It hampered him," Koenning said. "It hampered his conditioning level because a lot of the weight he gained, he gained in the mid-section. It wasn't all of it, but it was a lot of it and as you know we all at some point and time have had that problem. I'm as guilty as anyone with that problem. But we will see."

Koenning believes Gaither is the type of safety that with the proper use of his size can put some physical toughness back on a Clemson defense which he believes might have turned somewhat soft during the last five games.

"You would hope a guy that is 215 or 210 (pounds) can come up and be a strong tackler," Koenning said. "We tried to put him in that position in bowl practices to see what would happen.

"I think he has some room to grow there. He does have some fast twitch and he does have some quickness that we saw out of high school. It is just a matter of learning how to harness your skills, get brave and understand it isn't going to hurt that bad.

"Again, on the scout team they don't want the running backs and the receivers getting tackled that much so he went the whole fall not tackling anyone except in drills and then all of sudden you go and ask him to put the hat on somebody so it is probably an unfair evaluation there. We have to get him to be a guy that comes up and plants somebody.

"We have to get back to getting out and putting our faces to people which is something I don't think we did not do a good job of down the stretch. For whatever the reason, we didn't see enough of those in the games. That's not what we do. That's not Tommy Bowden, that's not me and we have to get back to doing that a little better and I hope Darius is a guy that can do that. We have to get back to having a whole bunch of guys that will do that."

CUTigers outlook: Gaither will head into the spring playing both safety positions as a backup to "Cat" safety Michael Hamlin and to free safety Chris Clemons. Reserves Sadat Chambers and Chris Russell will also get strong looks at both positions. If the Tigers are able to solidify some more depth in the secondary through recruiting, then Gaither might move to outside linebacker, but right now that isn't likely to happen.

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