Tigers Prepare for the Unexpected

CLEMSON - One of the consistent themes to emerge out of Clemson's preseason camp was the concern Alabama head coach Nick Saban would design a defensive scheme so complex, it would be difficult for Clemson's young and inexperienced line to put up much of a fight.

After all Saban, who won a National Championship at LSU in 2003 before bolting for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, is known as one of the top defensive minds in the game.

In the 2003 Sugar Bowl, playing for the national title against Oklahoma, Saban's defense limited the nation's top offense, which at the time was averaging over 45 points per game, to just 154 yards of total offense and two touchdowns.

The Bayou Bengals ended the year with the nation's top-ranked defense as well, holding opponents to less than 10 points per game on the year. The following season, Saban's last with LSU, the Tigers were again a stingy bunch, giving up just over 17 points per game on their way to a respectable 9-2 regular season record.

Last season, in his first year back at the college level after a two-year stint with the Dolphins, Alabama's defense wasn't quite as productive (31st overall, 28th against the run, 27th in scoring), but it showed enough improvement to win four games in which the Crimson Tide offense failed to score more than 14 points.

And given Saban's ability to recruit and develop talent, there's little doubt 2008 will witness more improvement for a coach that's known more for his defense than anything else.

"Coach Saban has had a long time to work on his game plan," Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence tells CUTigers.com. "We'd like to keep things simple and make sure we can execute. It may be a smaller game plan as a result so we can sharpen our assignments and make sure we can make the adjustments up front when they show a lot of different fronts and different schemes."

Leading Spence's concerns headed into the season opener in nine days, of course, is the offensive line.

Once again the Tigers are replacing four of five starters from the previous year and once again fans are concerned all of the inexperience will lead to miscues- especially early.

Complicating matters is the fact Saban will do everything in his power to create confusion in every possible way he can.

That means heavy movement before the ball is snapped, as well as unexpected blitz packages and stunts. You name it, and chances are Clemson's offensive line will see it as soon as the first snap of the game.

"I'm sure we'll see plenty of all of that," Spence admits. "He's had a long time to game plan and he's an excellent coach."

At one point during the preseason, offensive line coach Brad Scott even suggested Clemson's pass protections would be cut in half for the season opener- just to keep things as simple as possible.

"Generally we'll carry as many as 13 or 14 different protections [into a game] but because we are so young we don't want to put in too much," he said. "So we may cut that down to seven or eight just to try and keep things as simple as possible."

While Clemson's exact plan of attack against Alabama's front seven will certainly be kept as secretive as possible, Spence says he's developed more confidence in this year's line during preseason camp.

And that confidence may be aided by the fact that the Tigers may not start a single freshman against the Crimson Tide.

In fact if the season started today, redshirt sophomore Chris Hairston would start at left tackle, redshirt junior Jamarcus Grant would start at left guard, redshirt junior Thomas Austin would get the nod at center, while redshirt juniors Barry Humphries and Cory Lambert would start at right guard and right tackle respectively.

For as much as been made about Clemson's inexperience on the line, the youngest player to start from that group would be Hairston, and this is his third year in college and he may be the best of the bunch.

"I've always been a believer in the players we have returning on the offensive line this year," Spence said. "Especially with Coach Scott - he's done an excellent job developing those players.

"They are a very-tight knit, close bunch. And they have a high football IQ. So I've been impressed right now with what they've been able to accomplish."

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