5 not-so-obvious things to watch

CLEMSON - If the Tigers are going to show significant improvement early this season, it starts with these not-so-obvious five keys.

Preseason camp is over and kickoff is five days away. With that in mind, CUTigers.com takes a look at five not-so-obvious things to closely examine once Saturday's game against Middle Tennessee kicks off at 6:00 PM:

Standing at the 20-yard line of the Georgia Dome a year ago today, I watched C.J. Spiller take the opening kickoff back 15 yards before he was drilled by an Alabama special teams player. While it wasn't a big play at the time, it was painfully clear there was a large chip resting on the shoulder of every member of the Crimson Tide's program- from the head coach all the way down to the water boy. Alabama heard all summer long how Clemson was returning one of the most explosive offenses in the nation and bound for an ACC Championship and simply put, would have none of it. Time after time Alabama punched the Tigers in the mouth with a physical run game and hard-hitting defense. Time after time Clemson had no response. It was almost as if there was a certain energy lacking for the Tigers- both on the field and on the sidelines. That can't happen again Saturday ... or at any point this coming season if the Tigers are going to win an Atlantic Division championship. Simply put, Clemson's energy level can never diminish this season ... ever.

On a defense loaded with talent, depth and experience, there's no reason why there shouldn't be more big collisions in 2009 than any other year this decade. End of story. Kevin Steele's aggressive style will put linebackers and safeties in position to make bone-crushing hits on quarterbacks and running backs throughout this season. And if there isn't at least one jaw dropping tackle per quarter Saturday against Middle Tennessee's spread offense, something isn't right. DeAndre McDaniel, Brandon Maye, Kevin Alexander and Kavell Conner should all be should be licking their chops at the thought of the positions they'll be put in this year.

The Tigers have been blessed with so many offensive weapons over the last couple of years, the ultra-productive defense has been somewhat lost in the shuffle. For all the fireworks that were expected this time a year ago with players like C.J. Spiller, James Davis, Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham returning, it was the defense that finished No. 13 nationally in scoring by the time the season reached its conclusion. Fast forward to this year and the defense is clearly the strength of the team once again. In fact it could be said the defense will have to carry the load throughout the month of September while the offense breaks in a new quarterback and three new receivers. Sure, C.J. Spiller and Clemson's offensive backfield will surely have an opportunity for a big play or two Saturday, but the defense should put 81,000 on its feet more than anything else.

If the Tigers are going to live up to their defensive potential this year, DeAndre McDaniel could be known as "Big Play DeAndre."
Don't look. Turn away. Cringe. Sound like a familiar feeling when Clemson has been in short-yardage situations during the last three seasons? Here's a dose of reality: if the Tigers had been more productive in short-yardage and goal line situations the last three years, they would have won at least two Atlantic Division championships already and Tommy Bowden would still be the head coach. So yes, it's important. Rendrick Taylor will get his chance to ease Clemson's woes in this department this weekend, but it's going to come down to how much the offensive line has improved if the Tigers are going to consistently pick up 3rd-and-2 on the ground instead with the vaunted bubble screen throughout the coming season. The offensive line will be under a microscope all season long, but short yardage plays will come under even more scrutiny from the Clemson nation.

Make no mistake about it, Clemson has had the talent to win the ACC each of the last three seasons, but for various reasons it has fallen short of the goal and one of the main contributors has been predictability. Former offensive coordinator Rob Spence's refusal to depart from his three-play fourth quarter playbook single-handily contributed to many late-game collapses. Meanwhile defensively the Tigers consistently brought pressure from the SAM linebacker under former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning but never from anywhere else. While both units enjoyed success at times, it wasn't uncommon to hear fans from the stands correctly call Clemson's offensive plays before the ball was snapped and opposing offenses feasted on the defense during crunch time after figuring out Clemson's read-and-react scheme. If there's to be true improvement Saturday, it starts by setting an unsettling table for the rest of the ACC. Translation: on any play on either side of the ball literally anything is possible. That hasn't been the case the last couple of years, but it would be a welcome change and a step in the right direction for the Tigers this season. That means unexpected blitzes producing tackles for losses and sacks on defense and creative ways, outside of throwing 20 screen passes a game, to get C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford, Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper the ball on offense.

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