In order for that to happen, a significant void must be filled in the Clemson scheme – the starting quarterback.
How do you replace the third all-time leading total yardage and passing yardage performer in ACC history? Not to mention a veteran who set 46 school records in passing and total yardage. Quite simply, you can't replace the statistics, the leadership, the experience and the record-breaking performances of NFL draftee Charlie Whitehurst.
However all is not lost for coach Tommy Bowden and his charges as they head into the summer months. The cup is indeed half full for the optimists in Tiger country. And why might you ask?
Let's take a look at the returning starters. On offense, the Tigers return their entire offensive line plus six-game starter at TE, Thomas Hunter. Clemson's front line will boast of 80 career starts amongst veterans Barry Richardson and Marion Dukes at the tackle spot; Nathan Bennett and Roman Fry at guards and Dustin Fry at center. Regardless of who steps in under center, the new starting quarterback will have a veteran line to bolster their confidence on the field.
To build even greater confidence in a new quarterback, Clemson returns both of its starting tailbacks in sophomore James Davis and senior Reggie Merriweather. This duo combined for nearly 1,600 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns in 2005. The Tigers rushed for 1,836 yards last season, so having nearly 90 percent of the running game intact will keep opposing defenses honest in 2006 and thereby reduce some of the pressure off of a new quarterback.
The eight returning starters on offense also include wideout, Chansi Stuckey (64 catches, 770yds., 12.0 yd/pc, 4 TD), who led the ACC in pass receptions during the 2005 season. Tight end veteran Thomas Hunter, while not a serious receiving threat, did manage to secure at least one catch per game for a ten yard average. Clemson's offense under Tommy Bowden, has never relied on the tight end as a primary target, so ACC defensive coaches will focus their attention on containing Clemson's point of attack, where Thomas Hunter proved to be a very capable and steady blocker.
So who will be the starting quarterback for the 2006 version of the Clemson Tigers? Based on the performances from the Spring Game, the odds on favorite would have to be Will Proctor.
Harpers's favorite target in the spring game was Tyler Grisham, who snared nine passes for 106 yards. If nothing else, their familiarity with one another will pay some dividends in the fall. As mentioned previously, the experienced and talented Chansi Stuckey also returns, giving Clemson some reliability and consistency. Stuckey, injured for the spring game and withheld from game action, is expected to make a full recovery.
On the defensive side of the ledger, Clemson will need an outstanding performance if the team hopes to match or improve upon last year's 8-4 season. Bolstering some optimism for the Tiger faithful is the return of seven starters and senior punter, Cole Chason (36.4 yd. avg.).
Among the returning starters on defense are all three linebackers namely, Tramaine Billie, Anthony Waters and Nick Watkins. These three speedy and aggressive defenders finished the 2005 season as the top three tacklers for head coach Bowden. And while having seven returning starters is encouraging, what is interesting to note is that the four departed senior starters take with them, a total of 114 career starts. The seven returning starters account for only 87 career starts. Experience is at a premium.
Potential first round NFL pick Gaines Adams (rated No. 2 behind Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn on Mel Kiper's 2007 draft list) will bolster the defensive line with his team-leading 9.5 sacks from 2005. The Tigers must replace first round NFL selection Tye Hill at cornerback, but there appears to be enough speed and athleticism amongst the returning talent to mitigate some of the loss some of Hill's experience and skills.
The 2006 schedule, while not daunting, does not cut the Tigers any slack. And while facing patsies Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech and Temple give Clemson and its untested starting quarterback some relief, the bad news is these games do not occur consecutively.br>
The home-opener against Florida Atlantic is followed by consecutive road tilts against Boston College and Florida State (Daddy Bowden is still smarting after sonny boy bumfuzzled the old man in last year's 35-14 woodshed experience at Death Valley). These two teams are also in the same division as Clemson, and title hopes may be determined on foreign turf.
The season's schedule closes with Virginia Tech, Maryland, NC State and South Carolina, the latter 3 all at home. Tough opponents, and yet with three of the four games at home, Clemson may just run the table.
Four Questions Going Into Fall Camp:
1. How capable and consistent is quarterback Cullen Harper as a replacement for the departed Charlie Whitehurst.
2. What will Tommie Bowden do to protect his quarterback from early season match-ups against Boston College and Dad (FSU)?
3. How will Clemson's starting linebacker trio continue to lead the defense in 2006?
4. How will the impact of a possible one win, one loss split against divisional rivals Boston College and FSU impact Clemson's title hopes?
Next up, the Duke Blue Devils.
ACC Chatter: Clemson
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