Middle Tennessee is no cup cake

It's September, football is in the air and the Tigers play Saturday to open the 2009 campaign with Sun Belt Conference foe Middle Tennessee.

After his first full off-season as Head Coach, Dabo Swinney is all in to keep Clemson on the uptick and gunning for the school's first ACC Atlantic Division Championship.

Middle Tennessee is coached by former Clemson assistant Rick Stockstill. In his third season as the Blue Raiders' head coach, he has a 17-20 all-time record. He's not the only coach with Clemson experience. Four other coaches either coached or played at Clemson. Four staff members worked or graduated from Clemson.

The Blue Raiders finished 2008 at 5-7 overall—including a home win over Maryland and 3-4 (tied for fifth) in conference play. Ten starters return on offense and seven return on defense.

Junior quarterback Dwight Dasher earned freshman All-American honors in 2007, going 4-2 in his six starts. He was relegated to a back up role last year behind Joe Craddock. Under Tony Franklin's spread offense, Dasher could pick up where he left off as a freshman.

Seniors Phillip Tanner and Mark Thompson are candidates for two national awards. Tanner is on the Doak Walker Watch List (best running back) and Thompson is on the Rimington Trophy Watch List (best center).
All-purpose performer Desmond Gee is back for his senior year with 3,132 career all-purpose yards as a wide receiver, running back, punt and kick returner.

Also at receiver, Malcolm Beyah earned Sun Belt All-Freshman honors last year. He led all Blue Raider receivers last year with six touchdowns and a 16.7 yards per catch average.

Under Stockstill, Middle Tennessee is 4-1 all-time when a player has rushed for 100 or more yards and is 15-7 when a quarterback throws for 300 or more yards.

Linebacker Danny Carmichael is looking to become the first Blue Raider to notch 200 tackles in his career since Keith Pauldo finished his career with 205 in 2000.

Safety Jeremy Kellem is responsible for 15 turnovers in his 24 games at Middle Tennessee. He has five interceptions, three fumble recoveries, five forced fumbles and two block punts.

At 6 p.m., Clemson kicks off the new year with red-shirt freshman Kyle Parker making his first career start at quarterback with offensive coordinator Billy Napier calling the plays. After Parker beat out Willy Korn for the starting job during camp, Clemson coaches assured Korn that he'll also see his share of snaps this year.

C.J. Spiller, who's back for his senior year, will start his push for the Heisman Trophy. He returns at 12th on the ACC career all-purpose yards list with 4,908. Former North Carolina running back Leon Johnson is first with 5,828.

Spiller is also ninth in school history in rushing yards with 2,335, trailing Raymond Priester's 3,966.

Though Spiller will be the feature back for the first time in his Clemson career, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington are expected have roles too. Rendrick Taylor has cross-trained at fullback, running back and tight end but he's listed as the starting fullback on the depth chart. He and Chad Diehl are expected to contribute in short yardage and goal line situations.

Jacoby Ford leads a young wide receiver core. He'll start with juniors Xavier Dye and former walk-on Terrance Ashe. Marquan Jones slated as the fourth receiver after seeing limited playing time as a freshman last year. Behind those four are inexperienced, but talented Jaron Brown, Brandon Clear and Brandon Ford.

Michael Palmer leads the tight end group that could play a more prominent role in the offense this year while Clemson breaks in a new starter with no college experience. After red-shirting last year, highly touted high school prospect Dwayne Allen will finally see the field in Death Valley as the No. 2 tight end behind Palmer. Durrell Barry is back too.

The offensive line returns five starters from 2008. Across the front, starting at left tackle is Chris Hairston, Thomas Austin, Mason Cloy, Antoine McClain and Cory Lambert. However, the line is short on depth with one tackle (Landon Walker) and one interior lineman (Dalton Freeman) who Clemson coaches trust as starting caliber players. Lambert won the starting right tackle nod over Walker although both are expected the field on Saturday.

Kevin Steele leads a "salty" defensive unit that is led by a good, deep line.

At strong-side end, Da'Quan Bowers is back for his sophomore year and is looking to rack up more sacks after just one last year. He'll be backed by Malliciah Goodman, one of the two 2009 signees who is expected to play significantly this year. Local product Jarvis Jenkins is joined in the middle by Brandon Thompson. Steele really likes the interior depth with Jamie Cumbie, Rennie Moore and Miguel Chavis. At the bandit end, Ricky Sapp is backed by Kevin Alexander, who will also see time at SAM linebacker this year.

Scotty Cooper will split SAM duties with Alexander. Kavell Conner will line up at WILL linebacker. They'll flank MIKE linebacker Brandon Maye, who will serve as the defense's quarterback, calling plays and relaying signals.

Like the line, the secondary is deep and full of NFL potential. Seniors Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler return at cornerback. Byron Maxwell, Xavier Brewer and Coty Sensabaugh will play significantly against Middle Tennessee's spread. Marcus Gilchrist, who can also play corner, will start at free safety. He's backed by journeyman Sadat Chambers or Rashard Hall. At strong safety is the most physical player on the team, according to Steele: DeAndre McDaniel. He'll be backed by 2009 signee Jonathan Meeks.

The specialists are led by returners Spiller and Jacoby Ford. Richard Jackson will handle place kicking duties. He beat Spencer Benton in camp for the job. Benton will kick off and Dawson Zimmerman is back after cementing his right to the punting job. Clemson will use red-shirt freshman Matt Skinner at long snapper. Michael Wade will continue holding field goals and extra points.

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