COMMENTARY: Taking the Next Step

With the 2007 season now behind us, it is plain to see the Clemson football team is closer than ever to taking the proverbial next step. What needs to happen next in order for it to happen? Read on to find out.

1. GET MORE PHYSICAL: While it is somewhat of an ambiguous statement, it's very true. Defensively, think about the last time you saw a Clemson defender lay out a punishing hit that made your jaw drop. Now think of the last time it happened against a quality opponent not named Duke or Louisiana-Monroe. It's been a while. Looking back at the 2007 season, the more physical teams on Clemson's schedule were the teams that ended up beating the Tigers- Virginia Tech, Boston College and Auburn.

The same thing could be said on the offensive side of the ball. How many times was Clemson was faced with a third and short or third and goal this year only to drop back in the shotgun and throw the ball? Too many.

Offensively, the line must be more of physical presence in 2008. Unfortunately the Tigers must once again replace four of five starters, including two first-team All-ACC performers in Chris McDuffie and Barry Richardson. However the good news is four players on the line, Barry Humphries, Thomas Austin, Chris Hairston and Cory Lambert all have varying degrees of starting experience and the staff is high on freshmen Landon Walker, Wilson Norris, Mason Cloy and David Smith.

The running game also needs to become tougher in general. That starts with giving C.J. Spiller and James Davis a physical lead blocker- like FB Chad Diehl or WR Rendrick Taylor. The idea that Brian Linthicum or Michael Palmer can fill that role needs to be dismissed.

These are two of the most talented running backs in the history of Clemson football- you don't wan to say they deserve a quality lead blocker, but they do- even in today's I-formationless world of college football.

It also starts with C.J. Spiller hitting the hole with authority every single play, every single game.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers need more big collisions. You know, the bone-jarring hits that let the opposition know you mean business.

Many people are already pointing to the 2008 schedule claiming it's easier than what the Tigers face this year. Really?

Since when are road trips to Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia and Florida State easy? Don't forget about opening the season at the Georgia Dome against Alabama.

Clemson can't afford not to take the next step when it comes to being a more physical football program. It's needed for continued growth and success.

2. MAKE THE PLAY: For as much criticism as offensive coordinator Rob Spence has received the last two seasons, for the most part, he has put his offensive unit in position to make plays to win games. Aaron Kelly catches a pass against Boston College- the Tigers go to the ACC Championship game. Mark Buchholz makes four-of-five field goals against Georgia Tech instead of missing four, Clemson goes to the ACC Championship game. The wide receivers catch seven-of-nine dropped passes against Georgia Tech, again Clemson goes to the ACC Championship game. There are a series of plays in 2006 and even 2005 where the same thing can be said.

For the most part, the staff put the team in position to win every single game on the 2007 schedule. This team, and this program are so close to putting it all together it's mind boggling.

Simply put, it's time for the football program to grow up and take the next step by capitalizing on the plays that are already there for the taking.

3. CONSISTENCY AT KICKER: There's a reason Tommy Bowden put Mark Buccholz in the game for long field goals this season- he has the ability to make them. Problem is, he didn't. He missed field goals from 45 and 53 yards against Auburn in a game that went to overtime. Against Georgia Tech he missed four- from 47, 30, 50 and 48 in a 10-point loss. Against Boston College he missed two- from 46 and 54 in a game that was decided by three points.

Give the kid credit for doing what he did in his first year under the spotlight. He made the game-winner against South Carolina, arguably the biggest kick of the entire season. He attempted more field goals than any kicker in the country with the exception of one. But he only made 61 percent of those attempts. That number has to improve in 2008 if the Tigers are going to win the ACC.

It is still a defensive-oriented league and with the five road trips mentioned above, chances are at least one or two of those games if not more will be decided by three points or less.

4. GO TO FLORIDA: C.J. Spiller's 83-yard touchdown run against Auburn was a quick reminder of just how talented, and how fast he truly is. However for whatever reason in 2007, Spiller took a step back. His numbers were down and he didn't appear to be the same back he was during his freshman season.

While most of the onus falls squarely on his shoulders, more can be done to figure out how to best utilize his natural abilities.

If I was Rob Spence or Tommy Bowden, I go back and watch every single Florida game from this past season and see how RB/WR Percy Harvin is used and then copy that next season. Let James Davis be your featured back, but make sure Spiller gets his touches in the ways that benefit the team most as well.

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