Spring Look: At Clemson

The Clemson Tigers have a new quarterback in Willie Simmons, of Quincy, a new defensive coordinator in John Lovett, who experienced success against the Gators last season, and a new outlook under head coach Tommy Bowden. The Tigers return 52 lettermen from a team that snapped a five-game bowl losing skid last season. "We accomplished what we needed," Bowden said of spring drills.

While Tommy Bowden is the first Clemson coach to take the Tigers to a bowl game in each of his first three years, the upcoming season could be best described as a "new era." Clemson will have a different look from personnel on offense to coaching on defense.

Gone is quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, the Tigers' all-time leader in total offense, passing yardage, completion's, completion percentage and passing efficiency. Last season Dantzler became the first quarterback in NCAA Division I history to gain at least 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. He threw for 21 touchdowns and rushed for 10 more in directing a Clemson offense that gained more than 5,000 yards for just the third time in school history.

More importantly, the Tigers will have a new look on defense under coordinator John Lovett, who was at Auburn last year and helped those Tigers hold the Gators to season lows in points and total offense. Lovett replaces longtime assistant and former Florida State standout Reggie Herring. The Tigers surrendered 268 points in Atlantic Coast Conference play last year, ranking eighth in front of Duke (390 points).

While Clemson fans were disappointed by the Tigers' 7-5 record, at least they ended last year on a high note, defeating Louisiana Tech, 49-24 in the Humanitarian Bowl on New Year's Eve. It was the most points Clemson has ever scored in a bowl game and it ended a five-game bowl losing streak. The game also was played in 32 degree temperatures. It was the first time Clemson had played in the snow since 1936 and the gametime temperature was the coldest in Clemson history.

Of course, Tiger fans will start giving Bowden, son of FSU coach Bobby Bowden, the cold shoulder if the Tigers, 4-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season, don't improve their league standing. Overall, Clemson returns 26 lettermen on offense (four starters) and 24 on defense (eight starters).

Clemson's problems were easy to identify. The Tigers were heck on wheels offensively, but couldn't stop a cold defensively -- thus the change at coordinator. FSU, for example, seat season highs against Clemson in yards per rush (5.4), yards passing (369), total offense (557) and yards per play (8.6).

"We were young on defense in 2001 and some teams took advantage of our inexperience," Bowden said. "But, we made improvement over the course of the season and we saw that in the bowl game against Louisiana Tech. We held one of the top offenses in the country to 10 points over the first 53 minutes. The defense provided the offense with great field position, especially in the third period when we scored 28 points."

OFFENSIVE MACHINE

Clemson's never had a problem finding the end zone under Bowden.

The Tigers have averaged 424.5 yards per game in total offense in Bowden's three years. Clemson has gained an average of 189 rushing and 235 passing in those 36 games. In an average game under Bowden, the Tigers have averaged 30.8 points a game and scored four touchdowns. On average, the Tigers run the ball 44.6 times and throw it 32 times under Bowden. Clemson has scored 146 touchdowns in the 36 games, nearly four per game. Twenty-one of the 36 games Clemson has had at least 400 yards of total offense.

The Tigers should be just fine offensively this year under quarterback Willie Simmons, one of three players on the team from nearby Quincy Shanks High School. Regarded as an outstanding passer, Simmons has thrown 10 touchdowns in the last two years as Dantzler's backup. He had four touchdown passes against North Carolina in 2000 to tie the school record. Overall, Simmons has completed 62 of 147 passed for 971 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"Willie has waited his turn," Bowden said. "He has faced live bullets in big games against Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and many others. You like to have a system where you start your quarterback as a fourth-year junior. That is the case with Willie."

More than 8,000 fans showed for the Tigers' recent spring game at Riggs Field -- Memorial Stadium is undergoing renovation. The offense scored 44 points on five touchdowns and three field goals, and the defense nabbed two interceptions, forced two fumbles and had six sacks. Overall, the offense rushed 70 times for 240 yards and four touchdowns, and the quarterbacks combined to hit 35 of 58 passes for 406 yards and a touchdown.

Simmons hit on 13 of 25 passes for 198 yards and a score. His backup, sophomore Charlie Whitehurst, was 20 of 26 for 174 yards.

Clemson's greatest concern is the offensive line, where four starters must be replaced including All-American Kyle Young. Young had started 40 consecutive games for the Tigers. The entire interior line is gone, leaving Cedric Johnson, Nick Black, Greg Walker, Jermyn Chester and Nate Billespie competing for playing time.Gary Byrd is the only returning starter (left tackle). He had 103 knockdown blocks last year.

Clemson will feature the deepest group of receivers in history. Four freshmen who scored in last year's bowl game return. The quartet of Derrick Hamilton, Roscoe Crosby, Airese Currie and Ben Hall combined for 106 receptions, 1,548 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hamilton and Hall both made freshman All-America teams as chosen by The Sporting News. Hamilton gained 1,221 all-purpose yards to set a school record for freshmen. He also finished the regular season third in the nation in kickoff returns with a 31.7 average.

Look for Bowden to again put a high priority on the Tigers' running game. Clemson is 15-1 when rushing for at least 200 yards under Bowden. Senior Bernard Rambert is expected to step in for record-setter Travis Zachery at tailback. Rambert had 101 rushing yards and 77 receiving yards in last year's bowl game.

DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT NEEDED

The Tigers welcome back eight starters and 19 players who played at least 200 snaps last season. The top returning tacklers from last season are linebackers John Leake and Rodney Thomas. Leake had 134 tackles, while Thomas had at least eight tackles in each of the last five regular season games, including a career-high 16 against Wake Forest.

The line returns three of four starters, led by end Bryant McNeal (6-5, 230 pounds). McNeal ranked third in the ACC in sacks (eight) and chipped in 11 tackles for loss. Donnell Washington, at 6-6, 320 pounds, is the Tigers' most imposing player on defense at tackle. Washington led all Clemson freshmen in tackles and plays (431) last season.

The Tigers return three starters in the secondary, and left cornerback Brian Mance is perhaps the team's top big-player performer. He has six career interceptions, including 48 tackles and 10 deflected passes.

"Defensively, we must create more turnovers," Bowden said. "That was the biggest difference between our defense in 2000 and 2001. But, I thought our defense made improvement over the last third of the season. We played well enough to win in defense in each of the last four games. We had three interceptions in the bowl gam and that was one reason why we won by a significant margin. Hopefully, there will be some carry over on defense."

Special teams should be a strength, with the return of kicker Aaron Hunt and punter Wynn Kopp. Hunt made 10 of 12 field goals last season and 44 of 45 extra points. He was 5-for-5 in kicks of more than 40 yards and ranked sixth in the league in scoring and third in field-goal percentage. Kopp averaged 39.3 yards, including a season-best 45-yard average against North Carolina State. The Tigers also led the ACC in kickoff return average and 20.4 yards per kickoff return, also best in the league.

Clemson's schedule is expected to be a tussle. The Tigers play 12 regular-season games for the first time in school history, including a Thursday night, ESPN showdown at Florida State Oct. 3.

NOTES

Welcome Back: Four players have returned after sitting out last season. Altroy Bodrick, a three-year letterman at linebacker, missed last year with a torn ACL and returns at strong safety. Keith Kelly lettered as a reserve running back in 2000, redshirted last season and is now competing with Bernard Rambert for the staritng tailback position. Kevin Youngblood, who averaged 17.5 yards on 12 catches two years ago, returns after suffering a broken leg during preseason practice last year. And Ronnie Thomas, who lettered in 2000, returns at wide receiver after redshirting last year.

Just the numbers: Clemson returns eight starters and 22 lettermen on defense. The Tigers, however, return just four starters on offense and must replace four of the five starters on the offensive line. Clemson has its most depth at wide receiver, where nine lettermen return, led by sophomore s Derrick Hamilton, Roscoe Crosby and Airese Currie. Clemson also returns its starting punter and kicker for the first time since 1998.

Musical chairs:Four players have changed positions. Running back Terrance Huey has been moved to cornerback, Mark Jetton has switched from defensive line to offensive guard, tight end Todd McClinton has moved to the defensive line and Altroy Bodrick, who missed last season with a torn ACL, moves from linebacker to strong safety.

Mark your calendar: Clemson's freshmen report Aug. 3 and the varsity Aug. 7. The first day of practice for the full team is Aug. 9 and the first day in full gear is Aug. 13. The first day of classes is Aug. 21 and the Tigers open their season Aug. 31 at Georgia Tech.

Defensive changes: Bowden has announced defensive coaching assignments for his staff for this season. John Lovett, who was named defensive coordinator last week, will coach the secondary. Jack Hines, Clemson's secondary coach the last three years, will move to the linebackers, a position he coached at Auburn from 1996-98. Theilen Smith will remain defensive line coach and Rodney Allison will again coach the defensive ends, positions they have coached the previous three seasons at Clemson.

PLAYERS FROM FLORIDA: OG Jermyn Chester (Titusville), SS Ronny Delusme (Naples), SS David Dunham (Lake City), DB Jamaal Fudge (Jacksonville), SS Charles Harper (Quincy), FB Cliff Harrell (Tallahassee/North Florida Christian), SS Tavaghn Monts (Jacksonville), S Eric Sampson (Jacksonville), QB Willie Simmons (Quincy), WR Ronnie Thomas (Quincy), WR Kevin Youngblood (Jacksonville).


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