#5. Where is all of the returning starting experience this season
In a word? Gone. All three of last year's starters have moved on including SAM Tramaine Billie, WILL Nick Watkins and MIKE Cortney Vincent. Kavell Conner and Scotty Cooper each have two career starts under their belt, but that's it. Vincent was expected to be back for his redshirt senior season but he's been kicked off the team and has transferred to another school. In all likelihood, Clemson will start a junior (Conner), a redshirt freshman (Brandon Maye) and a sophomore (Scotty Cooper) when it takes to the field at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 30 against Alabama.
#4. Is Clemson's defense good enough up front and in the secondary so that just about any athlete could be plugged in at the SAM, WILL and MIKE linebacker positions and nobody will notice?
If you are a subscriber to CUTigers.com, you know better than that, but there are plenty of fans who probably are thinking this before the start of preseason camp. To some extent you can understand simply because Clemson led the ACC in passing defense a year ago and all of last year's starters in the secondary return and up front the Tigers should have one of the top two defensive lines in the league. However, Vic Koenning can't stick any Tom, Dick or Harry in at MIKE linebacker and expect him to be halfway decent and stopping the run or not biting on a well-executed play-action fake. Clemson returns plenty of talent at all three linebacker positions, the main problem is experience. By the end of the season, don't be surprised if two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore are receiving the most playing time. Yes having a strong line and secondary will help "cover" Clemson's inexperience at linebacker, but these guys still have to make plays.
#3. So if there's plenty of talent, what are the biggest concerns?
It starts with experience. Any time you have to replace every single starter from the year before, there's going to be questions. For example, can Scotty Cooper become a true playmaker at the SAM linebacker spot? Can he get to the quarterback? Will Brandon Maye be able to keep his cool the first time things don't go his way? Will he be good at stopping the run? Is Kavell Conner ready to be a fulltime starter? Where does Stanley Hunter fit in? Does Jeremy Campbell backup Maye at the MIKE linebacker spot or does he move back to the outside? Truth be told, there are so many working parts to this equation the answers to these questions won't be discovered until the season gets going. It comes down to gameday production. All of these players are going to get the opportunity to showcase what they can do, so it comes down to who plays the most plays.
#2. Is Brandon Maye the next Anthony Waters?
Linebackers coach David Blackwell sure hopes so. Maye is a different kind of player- one blessed with good speed and the kind of attitude that should remind fans of some of the old school Clemson defenses of the 1980's. As an example, on several occasions last fall while playing on the scout team, he had to be kicked out of practice just because he'd lose his cool. He's as an intense a player as you'll find on the defensive side of the ball. Like Waters, Maye arrived as an undersized linebacker who wasn't recruited as heavily as he probably should have been, but he obviously needs to prove himself on the field for a year or two before legitimate comparisons are made to Waters, who was a third-round pick in the 2007 draft by the San Diego Chargers. Funny thing is, Maye would have played last year had a broken foot not hampered his development.
#1. Which one of these guys is the best of the bunch?
Pick your player, any player. Brandon Maye has received tremendous praise from the coaching staff and looked strong during three spring scrimmages. He has good size and seems to be able to diagnose the action fairly quickly. Stanley Hunter also turned heads this spring, displaying excellent closing speed and the knack for making big plays. Kavell Conner has been in Vic Koenning's scheme for the last three years, so obviously he knows what's expected of him. However if you are looking for one guy to move above the rest this season, start with Scotty Cooper. Cooper started the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Auburn, recording 10 tackles. While he didn't have the best spring, he rebounded near the end and has worked extremely hard during offseason workouts.
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