Quarter Season Review

As we lead up to the Florida State and arguably the biggest game in 5 years for Clemson, let's take a step back and critique how the Tigers have faired ¼ of the way through the year. The following assessments will be used at each position: Exceeded Expectations, Below Expectations, and As Expected. Some of my results may surprise you.

Willie Simmons has started the year like a quarterback that doesn't want to make mistakes. That, in itself, is not a such bad thing. Simmons has thrown for 771 yards and 4 touchdowns through 4 games, hardly the type of statistics that will make your jaw drop, but at the same time, he's minimized mistakes, only throwing 3 interceptions. Overall, he seems to have a good command of the field, the offense, and his teammates.

Simmons' job has been workman-like and it would be hard to complain about his peformance up to this point in the seaosn. But as the big games loom on the horizon, I tend to think Willie will have to step up his game and make more plays to win games instead of just not making plays to lose them.

As Expected

Running Back
It would have been hard to predict the injuries at running back with Bernard Rambert (35 yards on 10 carries) and Chad Jasmin (30 yards on 5 carries). This banged up duo has slowed the output of the running back position, despite the solid play of Yusef Kelly (302 yards on 71 carries) in Rambert's absense.

Clemson has yet to have a 100-yard rushing game by a single tailback, a fact that won't be lost on opponents as the season progresses. It seems like everybody in the upper echelon of the ACC has a tailback that can that score from anywhere on the field.

Everybody except Clemson. While solid and dependable, there just does not seem to be a playmaker among the troops in the backfield. Duane Coleman where are you?!

Below Expectations

Wide Receiver
I'm not sure what most Clemson fans were looking for from this position, but I think most fans would have expected more from these highly touted wide receivers. While Aerise Currie (2 catches for 18 yards) has been a mild disappointment up to this point, the wide receivers in general have been solid.

Kevin Youngblood leads the team with 22 receptions for 178 yards, although he has yet to show the ability to go up after the long pass ala Rod Gardner. Derrick Hamilton (10 catches for 88 yards and 152 yards rushing) is showing that he is a future NFL prospect and J.J. Mckelvey (17 catches for 203 yards) has proven to be a durable procession receiver. Even former walk on Tony Elliott has been able to make several clutch receptions with 120 yards on 6 catches.

The good news is that the ball is being spread around, which should make defending the Tigers more difficult as the offense continues to open up more through the course of the season. While you expect this group to shine bright, it is hard to be disappointed in the receivers as a whole up to this point.

After all, just take a ride down I-26 in Columbia and see what's down there. Clemson fans should be ecstatic that this group is in Tiger Town.

As Expected

Tight End
A Clemson fan had the audacity to call a local talk radio show this past week and complain that the tight ends are not getting enough balls thrown their way. Huh? What rock has this guy been living under?

The once exclusive club of Tiger tight ends to ever set their hands on the ball has vaporized into a relative free for all. Ben Hall has caught 5 balls in 4 games, Bobby Williamson 3. Heck, they have even been able to account for a touchdown through the air. Gasp!

Expect the production out of the two talented tight ends to continue, if not increase. It is the one position on the field that absolutely frustrates the heck out of defensive coordinators in defending Clemson's spread offense.

Above Expectations

Offensive Line
The "woe is me" attitude that prevailed and hung over the Tiger offensive line has vaporized through 4 games in the 2002 season. While this offensive line has had a couple of injuries and probably will never take over a football game, the liability that most feared from this unit has not materialized.

The concern on this unit continues to be avoiding injuries and forcing younger players to play before they are ready. But, if this unit can stay intact, it should not only avoid being a negative, it may end up being a major asset as the year progresses.

Anybody that thought the offensive line (minus Derrick Brantley) would be this strong at this point in the season was considered giddy with optimism back in August. That optimism is now a reality.

Above Expectations

Defensive Line
Those inside the program, including John Lovett, felt this unit would be the strength of the defense. Most fans were wary, mainly because this unit had underachieved the past two years.

But, make no mistake about it; this unit has controlled the line of scrimmage in every game played to this point. The defensive line has also been the backbone of the defensive resurgence that has engulfed the Clemson football team.

Nick Eason, Khaleed Vaughn, Donnell Washington and Bryant McNeal have combined for 78 tackles and 8 sacks through 4 games. The pressure the front has been able to get on opposing teams quarterbacks has offered Lovette the security of dropping linebackers into coverage instead of putting his cornerbacks in too many man to man situations. The secondary is improved, but they look a lot better than last year in large part to the defensive front. Nick Eason's injury would be a big blow, so here is to hoping he will be back in Tallahassee.

Above Expectations

While this group may not be the second coming of Linebacker U., it has been as advertised. John Leake (52 tackles) and Rodney Thomas (42 tackles) are anchors on a unit that may be the fastest in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But the great deal of optimism at linebacker stems from the play of Eric Sampson, Kelvin Morris (rover) and Brandon Jamison, who have added depth, dependability, and 34 tackles. Not to mention Sampson's game saving interception versus Georgia Tech. It is hard to find too much fault in the linebacker play, even if it was expected at the beginning of the season.

As Expected

If there is a secondary unit in the country that have benefited in one year more than this group has under John Lovett, I would love to see them. Eric Meekins, Brian Mance, and Kevin Johnson sometimes look like different players altogether compared to last season. Their confidence has skyrocketed, but most importantly their technique has improved to the point where this group is no longer laughingstock of the ACC.

The emergence of Justin Miller, the true freshman from Kentucky, has lit a fire in the secondary this year. Maybe not since Antwan Edwards roamed the secondary at Clemson has a true freshman showed so much promise and dependability at a position that has to be almost impossible to be successful at as a first year player. If Justin Miller improves under Lovett as much as his predecessors have, he has the potential to be a incredibly special player at Clemson University.

Above Expectations

Kicking Game
After the first week debacle in Athens, the kicking game has settled down and performed adequately throughout the past three games. That being said, Aaron Hunt has only connected on 6-of-9 field goals, which is exactly going to wow pro scouts. And of course, his miss versus Georgia in the closing seconds was a bitter pill to swallow.

Fortunately, Hunt has been through the fires as a kicker at Clemson, and there is little reason to doubt that he will make another clutch kick to win a game as his career progresses.

Wynn Kopp, also under fire at Georgia, has upped his average to 38.1 yards per kick. Ideally, he is still about 2 yards shy of what Tommy Bowden would like, and he just may get there before the end of the year.

The key to Kopp's kicking will not lie in the distance of his kicks, but if he is able to pin a team inside their own 20-yard line late in a game. He has yet to prove that to this point.

As Expected

Season Ahead
Back in August, I thought an 8-4 regular season was in the making with losses at Georgia, at Florida State, versus N.C. State, and versus South Carolina. So far, I have been right on the money, although the road ahead has gotten easier in some areas and more difficult in others.

Florida State still looks like a loss, but the Seminoles are vulnerable and it would not shock me if Clemson wins this Thursday night. Unfortunately, the loss to Louisville has probably focused the Seminoles enough to get their attention…and their best shot.

Virginia, although still a game that Clemson should win, does not look as easy as it did in August, especially coming off the game with the Seminoles (win or lose Thursday). They are young, but very talented, and winning in Charlottesville should be considered a nice accomplishment, just ask South Carolina.

Wake Forest looks bad, much worse than I thought with the veterans they had coming back. Losing to them at home would be an embarrassment.

North Carolina has been up and down, but it is obvious that they miss their defensive stars and they don't look as scary in October as they did in August. However, they were also up and down last year, so it is hard to get a good read on what to expect when the Tigers make the trip up to Chapel Hill. Again, getting a win on the road versus a decent ACC team should be considered an accomplishment, not an afterthought.

And even though N.C. State has had a cakewalk to 6-0, it is hard to ignore what they are doing and they scare me more now than in August. The Thursday night showdown in Clemson is setting up to be a huge game.

I thought Friedgen's magic would continue for the Maryland Terps, but it is obvious they are not the same team as last year. While they should be improved by November, that is a game that Clemson will be favored to win. I never like to see a Friedgen offense come to town, but I don't lay awake at night worrying about this one.

If I had to change one game, it would have to be predicting a loss to South Carolina. The Gamecocks don't have the bite of the last 2 seasons, and barring a miraculous turnaround before November, Clemson could be favored by double digits.

A rivalry game is always a tough one, and in general, you would take a win however you could get it. But, the Gamecocks certainly don't look as scary as they did back in August. Their offensive problems are compounded by the fact that they are not very good on defense…a nasty formula no doubt. At this point, I would think beating the Gamecocks should be easier than at any time since 1999.

In summary, if I could change my predictions from August I would go from 8-4 to 9-3…replacing the loss to South Carolina. And if you pinned me down, I'd say the Tigers would be heading to the Peach Bowl to play a middle of the pack SEC team, maybe Tennessee. Not bad, and certainly a step in the right direction.

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