Every year about this time, I'm generally one of the first people to point out just how worthless spring practice can be from a fan's perspective. From my standpoint, it always seems the spring stars of years past often end up as the third team bench warmers of the future.
In addition, I've always taken the stance that spring ball is a great time to work on fundamentals. While it may not lend itself to the most exciting practice reports, it does give your team a chance to improve on areas of weakness from the year before.
However this year, like both fans and members of the media, I view spring ball in somewhat of a different light.
For starters, there are several starting positions up for grabs that haven't been in quite some time.
Obviously one is quarterback, where redshirt junior Cullen Harper will try to hold off Tribble Reese, Michael Wade and freshman Willy Korn.
Remember the last time the quarterback position was truly open for competition? It's been a while. In fact, you have to back more than five years when Charlie Whitehurst was battling starter Willie Simmons in 2002 and even that "battle" was more a less a foregone conclusion- with Simmons being the favorite despite the fact he would be replaced halfway through the following season by Whitehurst.
It's no secret most expect Korn to eventually win this battle this spring.
Coming in as one the No. 1 high school quarterback in South Carolina history, Korn is blessed with ample arm strength, good mobility and seems to carry himself as a natural leader both on and off the field.
But he still must prove himself during spring practice and he still has to climb his way up the depth chart - from No. 4, where he currently sits, to possibly No. 1 if he does what most expect.
Even bigger questions surround the offense in general.
Offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who was brilliant against lesser competition an the beginning of the 2006 season, struggled putting together quality game plans against Maryland, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Kentucky last season.
But were those struggles tied into below average play at quarterback or an overrated offensive line? Or were those struggles related to conservative play-calling? The answers to those questions remain murky at best, but clearly some changes are in order if the Tigers are to improve on last year's eight wins.
Special teams will also come under scrutiny this spring.
With Jad Dean and Cole Chason out of the picture the kicker and punter positions are wide open for the first time in three years.
Richard Jackson figures to get the first shot at both spots, but he'll be competing against several walk-ons, including last year's second team punter Jimmy Maners and soccer player Mark Buccholz at placekicker.
Special teams will also be a focus because of new running backs coach Andre Powell, who comes to Clemson with two years of experience at North Carolina as a special teams coordinator. While his new responsibilities have to yet to be revealed, there's a good chance he'll be involved in the units that struggled last year- especially kickoff coverage.
Of course there are other issues on this team - questions about a revamped offensive line and holes at linebacker and cornerback will be mentioned in any spring practice preview in the coming days.
But perhaps an even bigger issue is mindset.
Clearly, this team still has a tremendous amount of talent. At running back, Clemson will boast two of the most talented players in the country in 2007 in C.J. Spiller and James Davis. The Tigers will also have one of the fastest wide receivers in the country in Jacoby Ford.
There is also plenty of returning talent on the defensive line, at safety. There is stability on the staff as nearly every assistant coach turned down other jobs this offseason to remain at Clemson.
There are also enough pieces in place to warrant consideration for a winning record in the ACC and a chance to win eight or nine games and get to a decent bowl.
But at what point does this program take the proverbial next step?
Sure, for the past two seasons, Clemson has been on the cusp of playing in the ACC Championship game. In fact, just one single point has separated the Tigers from competing for a BCS game in each of the past two years.
But at what point does this program figure out a way to get over the hump, back to 10 wins for the first time in 16 years and into the BCS for the first time ever?
Wake Forest did it last season with less talent, less facilities, less everything. Why can't Clemson do it?
Head coach Tommy Bowden will be the first to tell you he's working everyday to figure out an answer to those questions, but those answers remain unclear.
While the Tigers have indeed been just one point away from playing in the ACC Championship game in 2005 and 2006, there needs to be more consistent play against every team on the 2007 schedule to get there.
There needs to be an improved mindset with this team to make sure the events of the past four years don't repeat themselves once again this season.
Take a look for yourself- there has always been a clear turning point which sets the tone for the rest of the year in each of the past four seasons.
In 2003, it was an upset win over Florida State that propelled Clemson to four straight wins, including a Peach Bowl win over No. 6 Tennessee.
In 2004, there was a botched snap on a punt against Georgia Tech that sent Clemson into a four game slide from which it never truly recovered.
In '05 it was another win over Florida State that again sent the Tigers on a four-game winning streak and a Champs Sports Bowl win over Colorado.
Last year, it was a stunning 24-7 loss to Virginia Tech that sent the Tigers spiraling to four losses in their last five games after a 7-1 start.
While turning points are good when you close the year strong after a disappointing start (2003 and 2005), they are bad when you close with a thud (2004 and 2006).
If you were to string together the best wins of the last four years, this program would like one competing for a National Championship: Miami, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida State (three times), Colorado - all teams the Tigers have beaten.
On the flipside, if you string together losses to Wake Forest, Duke, Maryland and Kentucky it looks like the exact opposite.
So what's my point with all of this?
Simple: while the position battles and Willy Korn and all normal spring talk will dominate discussion for the next four weeks, perhaps the more important aspects of this team are mindset and consistent play.
Perhaps the questions that truly need answering should read like this: Will the appropriate leaders emerge to prevent the roller coaster seasons of the last four years? Can inconsistent play finally become a thing of the past? Can this team develop the proper mindset to finally win an ACC Championship, overcoming the failures that sidetracked previous seasons along the way?
No one in their right mind would suggest Clemson is going to go undefeated in 2007. But for the first time in years, it would be nice to see a team that doesn't let one loss beat it over and over again.
It would be nice to see a team that beats every single team it should through the course of a 12 game schedule. It would be nice to see consistency.
So can it happen this year? Can the Jekyll and Hyde of college football finally put together a full 12 game season without walking through a few land mines along the way?
We'll find out.
And it all starts Saturday March 10 with the beginning of spring practice.
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