Back to Basics

CLEMSON - It was like clock work. Jack Leggett knew before he even got out to the field for practice that things were already taken care of.

Guys that had been in the system three or four years, guys like Andy D'Alessio, Taylor Harbin, Marquez Smith and Brad Chalk, all knew what Clemson's veteran coach wanted done. Before he could even say what was going to be next, they were already doing it.

"When you walk out there and you see those infielders, plus that centerfielder, then you know things will get done," Leggett said. "We would start doing run downs, and that takes five to 10 minutes then they would transition right into pick offs, then first and third situations and then bunt situations.

"They just knew the system so fall (practice) was easy in terms of getting your system in."

But because graduation took D'Alessio and Smith, and Harbin and Chalk decided to try their hands at being professionals a year early, fall practice wasn't so easy this year. The Clemson baseball program spent the 45 days allowed to practice in the fall rebuilding its infield and replacing perhaps its best centerfielder in quite sometime.

"There was a lot of teaching this fall in trying to mold this team into the team that you want them to be," Leggett said. "It has been a challenge."

This off-season has been one of the biggest transition years in Leggett's 15 seasons at Clemson. Not only is he having to replace four guys that were pivotal in the Tigers' run to the 2006 College World Series and last year's late season surge that advanced them the Starkville Super Regional, but he also has to replace pitchers Daniel Moskos – the No. 4 overall selection in last summer's draft – David Kopp, Stephen Clyne and Alan Farina.

Those guys helped the Tigers to a solid 3.73 ERA last year, while striking out 525 batters – the best figure by a Clemson pitching staff since 1996.

In all, Clemson spent fall practice having to replace 11 players taken in the Major League Draft – eight underclassmen. To make matters tougher, most of Leggett's highly touted 2007 recruiting class were also drafted and many of them are now in the minor leagues.

"It seems like that happens to us every single year," Leggett said.

The last time Clemson lost so many returning players and recruits to the draft was in 2002 when eight players and several other recruits were taken by Major League Scouts. The following year, the Tigers went 39-22 – their only below 40-win season in Leggett's tenure and the program's first since 1985.

"It has been a challenge, but that's why I'm here," Leggett said.

The challenge wasn't made any easier when associate head coach and long-time pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan left the program in the summer to be Florida's new head coach.

O'Sullivan was Leggett's right-hand man and one of the top recruiters and pitching coaches in the country.

"Losing Sully was tough, but it was a great opportunity for him," Leggett said. "But we have another guy here in Kyle Bunn that will do a great job and works real hard. He has a lot of pride in what he is doing."

Bunn, a former Citadel player, earned a solid reputation as a pitching coach at Mississippi where he turned a struggling pitching staff into one of the SEC's best the last couple of years. He inherits a staff that has plenty of talent in guys like D.J. Mitchell, Ryan Hinson, Matt Vaughn and Matt Zoltak, but he also inherits a staff that has a lot of new faces and raw arms.

"We have some questions there, but I think we will have some guys step up and have some good years for us hopefully," Leggett said.

One of those guys might be right-hand pitcher Kyle Deese from Chapman High School in Inman, S.C., or redshirt freshman Graham Stoneburner. Leggett is also hoping to get a big contribution from senior righty Brock Schnabel.

"We have some work to do. This is going to be a task that's going to require a lot of attention," Leggett said.

At the plate is where the Tigers will spend a good deal of work trying to get better. Thanks to the draft and graduation, Clemson lost a lot of its pop from last year's 41-23 team that finished the season ranked 12th nationally by Collegiate Baseball and 16th nationally by Baseball America. D'Alessio, Smith and Harbin combined for 41 of the Tigers' 66 home runs and 168 of their 360 RBIs.

Catcher Doug Hogan, who hit .350, is the only player back that hit more than five home runs and is the only player that has more than 30 RBIs. He finished the 2007 season with 13 home runs and 46 RBIs, while also recording 15 doubles, which was second on the team.

"We have to continue to make ourselves better and figure out ways to make us improve," Leggett said. "There is going to be some surprises, but I think there will be people that will step forward between now and in the end of February."

On of those people could be shortstop Stan Widmann, who missed all but six games a year ago after having successful neck surgery. Widmann was hitting .409 before being sidelined, and having a tumor removed from this third vertebra in his back last March 27. The tumor was non-cancers.

Widmann was on the field this past fall, fielding grounders and throwing.

"He is a tough kid," Leggett said. "He is working his way back."

And that's the kind of leadership and dedication, Leggett hopes his young players will recognize and learn from his senior shortstop.

"He is a good leader on the team and is a good player by example," Leggett said. "He is out there working hard every time. He has a lot of pride in his game. We need him on this baseball team, and we need to have him back healthy. He is making every effort to help his team out like he did last year.

"Hopefully he will get that back because obviously he hasn't seen live pitching in a long period of time. His defense will come back. He will feel his way through that. He is taking a lot of ground balls and is getting that going. It will be the hitting that will take a little while to get back I think."

With so many question marks to fill, many around the country feel Clemson will not have the same control on the ACC as it as had in recent years. Leggett, however, believes flying under the radar might be the best thing for his young team.

"All I know is that might be something somebody assumes when looking at the negative side of things. I'm always looking at the positive side," he said. "I know what we have done here. We're definitely at a different starting point because we have a lot of work to do, but I have confidence that we can do that work and that we can mold this team into one that can contend for things.

"We have a lot of work to do. There is no doubt about it. I can understand everyone's concern about it or opinion about where we are right now and how much we have lost. Maybe that's a good thing. We're going into the season with a little less pressure. We have lost some good people, but we are going to do everything we can to make these young kids the players they need to be in order to be successful in this conference. We are not writing this season off by any stretch of the imagination."

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