Let the Debate Begin

With the departure of defensive end Phillip Merling and the arrival of one of the top high school players in the nation, many take it for granted that Daquan Bowers will move into the vacant starting spot for Clemson.

But we all know what happens when you assume.

It's not a given that the freshman Bowers will take over for Merling. Rising junior Kevin Alexander has experience, strength, speed and, quite frankly, is someone the coaching staff loves.

It could very well turn out to be another situation like what happened with quarterback Cullen Harper and incoming freshman Willy Korn, who nearly every fan thought would be the starting quarterback.

We know how that turned out.

"Traditionally, what coaches have always done is you let the upperclassmen have the first shot," Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "I'll say this, nobody works harder than Kevin and he's probably the strongest pound-for-pound guy that we have in the weight room."

The battle between Bowers and Alexander could also end up like what transpired at middle linebacker, where Cortney Vincent and Antonio Clay split time pretty evenly.

"I think it will be a really good competition," Koenning said. "And then when you throw Andre Branch in there, who we got to redshirt this year and who we think is going to be a good player, I think we're going to be really strong at that position."

Alexander, who was moved from linebacker to end in August, played nearly 240 snaps as Merling's backup this year. It was the first time the rising junior had played anywhere but linebacker.
Alexander, who was moved from linebacker to end in August, played nearly 240 snaps as Merling's backup this year. It was the first time the rising junior had played anywhere but linebacker.

He did such a good job that Jamie Cumbie, who began 2007 as Merling's backup, was moved to defensive tackle in the middle of the season.

At first glance, it would seem that Alexander has a disadvantage because of his height and weight. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, he weighs 35 pounds less than Merling and is a two inches shorter. He's even 20 pounds less than Bowers.

But as eluded to earlier by Koenning, what makes Alexander stand out is his raw strength and speed, which actually gives him an edge over most lumbering defensive ends. He power cleans 375 pounds.

"He's going to be a different type of body-type guy," Koenning said. "There's an equation with force times velocity, and I don't know which one of those scientists or smart people came up with that, but when you're extremely strong and you're extremely fast, sometimes that makes up for (lack of weight).

"He's one of the strongest guys in the weight room and he's going to be bringing some velocity as a 4.6 guy rather than a 4.75 or 4.8 guy."

However, Bowers obviously is no pushover, either. He brings many of the same attributes that Alexander possesses.

"He's got good size and is extremely athletic and he uses his hands well technically," Koenning said. "He's also got real good flexibility and is a real smart and intuitive young man. He's real even tempered.

"He seems to be one of those guys that people gravitate towards because of his demeanor. He's got really good leadership skills, so I think he's going to be a great teammate for all of our guys."

Because of his athleticism, there's the belief that Bowers could play several positions, but Koenning thinks defensive end is in his immediate future.

"I think right now that end is a need for us," he said. "It's a perfect fit for him right now. We'll start next week talking about what direction we want to go with next year's defense. We always tend to shape it differently based on the players that we have."

Regardless of who ends up as the starter, Clemson appears to be in a no-lose situation. And Koenning truly believes it's going to be that way at every position much sooner than later.

"We should be better (on defense) than last year," he said. "It seems like that guys that we're recruiting are more wanted by others schools than maybe some of the other guys were a few years ago.

"Our last three years, the defenses have ranked statistically in the top five in the history of the school. We're building a tradition. I think we should be even better again this year."

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