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Mail Call, a weekly feature on Tigerillustrated.com since 2000, is a segment specifically for subscribers only who send in questions and comments to publisher Cris Ard. Ard has covered Clemson football since 1993.
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Tigerillustrated.com's Mail Call
Randy L. – Woodruff, SC: Great job guys. My question is how many offensive tackles are we tracking this year? Do you see many true tackles or are most of them possibly going to end up moving inside? I know this is probably the hardest position to stick with and be successful at but we sure need more guys to play in space. Also, in the past we were close on a few very good players but just could not close the deal. Do you foresee better closing ratios out of this new staff at this critical position?
ARD: Randy, hope all is well. Thanks for the kudos, and for frequenting the Web site!
I expect Clemson's staff to take at least two offensive tackles, and you are correct. Indeed it is a major emphasis in the 2010 class. Landon Walker is in a strong position to give the right tackle spot some stability over the next three years. J.K. Jay will remain at tackle, and admittedly is more comfortable at right tackle, but could get some work at left tackle. I personally think it's inevitable that he'll play left tackle at some point in the future, because Cory Lambert isn't a left tackle, as we saw last fall. Brandon Thomas would probably be better suited as a guard, but he's got long arms for a 6-foot-4 player, and without question has the foot quickness, speed and athleticism to get a look at tackle. Chris Hairston, as you know, is still in the fold for the next couple of seasons as well.
As for closing the deal, it's difficult to make a determination on something like that given the early stages of the recruiting process, and the fact that this staff hasn't been together for a full year. You've got an outstanding stable of recruiters, but several of them are knocking on doors and visiting high schools they haven't seen in years, so it's a transition, without a doubt.
I spoke with Dabo last week, and he unofficially upped their sign total from a figure I got last month. He said it was possible they could take 22-24 players next signing day, tabbing it as a "full class." If they do that, and take care of business on the field this fall, that should position them to secure a top 15-20 recruiting class, given the numbers they're expected to take. All you can ask for down the stretch is to be in a position to top off your class. There was a stretch from 1999-2004, with the exception of 2001, where Clemson's staff was criticized for finishing second on so many kids down the stretch, but since 2005 it's a trend that has been changing, considering the abundance of national recruits that have been acquired in January in each of the last four years.
Rennie A. - Macon, GA: I have been a subscriber for a long time and enjoy the site. I have seen the tone of the posters become more and more frustrated over the years however. To me, and I have been a Clemson fan for almost a half century, the administration, including the athletics director, pays lip service to making our football program specifically and total athletic program in general the best, but don't actually back that up. My question is how does Clemson's facilities in football and money paid to attract top assistants compare to the rest of the ACC and to Carolina? Thanks for the great coverage.
ARD: Thanks for the compliments.
Without a doubt you've seen a lot of frustration and unrest within the fan base, and I think it's justified. The further you get from 1991, it will heighten, in my opinion. When you have a program that does what Clemson's did in the 1980's, and then drops out of the national scene for much of the decade of the 1990's, and for much of this decade with no ten-win season in 19 years and no conference title in 18 years, that's something that doesn't sit well at a place where football is the money cow.
Clemson's facilities, notably the West Zone, upon completion, will rank in the top half of the ACC or top three or four. Florida State and North Carolina will still have an edge in football facilities, in totality.
As for your question on where Clemson's staff ranks in the ACC or SEC in terms of salary, we should be in a position to get a tally on that in July. Some staffs do not yet have their contracts settled this off-season.
Jesse H. – Simpsonville, SC: Hey Cris, what's the projection for Buster Hunter for 2009?
ARD: Exiting spring workouts he wasn't in the two-deep. Daniel Andrews, Jeremy Campbell and Tig Willard were their second-team players. Buster had some health issues he addressed, as you know, and told me last week he felt he'd be ready to roll by the time summer voluntary workouts begin next month. He's got an opportunity work as a second-team contributor this fall. He loves to rush the passer, he's fast and has some explosion, and can get off blocks, so they're giving him a look at the SAM position. Barring further health issues preventing him from working, he'd be a projection obviously to beat out Andrews for the second-team spot at SAM in August.
John – Clemson, SC: About a month ago everyone was talking about Jaron Brown being an impact freshman. As of this past week, you stated that Jones, Dye and Jacoby Ford would be seeing starting roles. My question, is what happened to Jaron? Is he still being looked upon to make an impact? Do you think he can overtake Dye? Or has he been slipping in production as of late? Also, are Terrance Ashe and Brandon Clear going to see valuable minutes this year, or will they be the X. Dye of last year (lots of hype but no PT come game-time)? Thanks. You do a great job with the site. Wish I had your job.
ARD: Thanks for the kudos.
I think if you look back at our pre-spring analysis, and Dabo Swinney's pre-spring remarks, Brown was tabbed as a "potential" impact player this fall who could be in a position to nab a few starts later in the season. That has not changed.
Jones, Dye and Ford project to log the most minutes of the receivers they have. Dye is a player that I don't know I'd characterize as having a lot of hype last year. He was always still – at best – regarded as no better than their third best receiver behind Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham. But I do think it's a pivotal year for Dye. It needs to be a statement season for him, given that he's a rising junior with just 10 career receptions.
Both Ashe and Clear, particularly Ashe, have a strong grasp on their offense. Ashe is probably a guy that most fans know very little about that could end up with 20+ catches this season.
Back to Brown for a moment; it's always somewhat common to see a freshman get a lot of hype for his athleticism, skill level and progression in mat drills and in the early stages of spring. But the reason you don't hear as much about that guy going into the final days of spring is because as more installation is put in, essentially he's not playing as fast as he was the first week. When you don't know what you're doing, when you're not sure of the package, you're not going to play as fast. He'll get some of that back in August obviously, and again, he's still a guy we think has the "potential" to make an impact this fall, likely later in the fall.
Bryce McNeal, for example, will come in this July and will have a lot of hype surrounding his arrival, but honestly, the kid couldn't even line up on the field in their offense as of today, given that he's never been in a position meeting or stepped foot on the practice field. Where he's at in the end of August Camp or the first couple of weeks of September will determine whether he plays this fall.
Shaw N. – Statesboro, Ga: What is your opinion of player development over the last five years at Clemson? It seems while some of the most talented have come in and made an imminent impact, others (of the most talented) have taken awhile. But it also seems that the ceiling was reached rather quick, and after becoming the starter, no real gains were made to better their game. Is it the players, coaches or some of both depending on the position?
ARD: Ultimately a lot is on the kid. Ultimately a lot of it is on the talent. I think most coaches will tell you that. I think most NFL scouts will tell you that. Barry Switzer, one of the greatest and most successful coaches of the modern era, said in 1989 that it was his opinion that college football success was at least 80-percent acquisition of talent. Sure, he was a great coach. Danny Ford was a great coach. They won national championships. Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, they were and are legends, great coaches, but they were also great recruiters in their day, and their teams had some of the nation's best personnel.
That doesn't mean that developmental programs or programs that do not produce a lot of NFL prospects cannot be successful and go to bowl games and contend for championships. But Boise State and West Virginia, for example, are exceptions.
You mention the last five years at Clemson. In that stretch, there have been players like Aaron Kelly, Tyler Grisham, Mike Palmer, Chris Clemons, Mike Hamlin, Cortney Vincent, Barry Richardson, Jock McKissic, Rashaad Jackson, Kavell Conner, Chris Hairston, just to name a few, from the 2004-2006 classes, that went on to start at least 10 games, all players that were two stars or low three stars, and not highly recruited.
On the flipside, you had several highly regarded players at that time who never lived up to the billing they received out of high school, like Josh Miller, Cory Lambert and Darius Gaither, to name a few.
Coaches get criticism for the busts, and they get credit for a lot of kids who turn out well who weren't highly regarded. It's a combination of several elements. Some of those kids weren't necessarily a product of great developmental coaching so much as they were underrated out of high school. Rashaad Jackson, for example, clearly would have been rated higher had he been a projection to qualify. No one felt he would make it, and actually he barely made it in at the eleventh hour on an academic waiver, as you remember. You look at guys like Grisham and Vincent and Conner and Hairston, players who didn't even have a single Division I-A offer outside of Clemson, then evaluate the level of production they were responsible for. That's pretty strong.
Josh Miller looked liked a war daddy at Shrine Bowl workouts, and appeared to be on the way to stardom, but never had the impact that we felt he would have. You take guys like T.J. Williams or Rendrick Taylor, by circumstances that prevailed, didn't or haven't yet had the careers we anticipated. T.J. had some off the field issues, which prevented him from enrolling at Clemson, then he had more issues at Michigan State. Taylor, for example, suffered a fractured arm and a broken wrist in two of the last three years, which obviously deterred his progress. Then you look at flat out misses like a Darius Gaither, who a lot of programs went after.
Most kids who work hard, who have the physical tools, will be successful. Development of personnel is key. It's crucial, but let's be honest… by far and away simply look at the teams that have won the national championship the last 30 years and it's easy to see why they were on top of the heap those years. It's not like it's some great mystery, or some wizard on the sidelines dialing up plays for 13 games to win the Sears Trophy. The reality is that those teams were stocked with outstanding personnel, and usually had highly regarded recruiting classes, with the exception being BYU in 1984, who many felt simply wasn't a top three/four team that year.
Jon P. – Pisgah Forest, NC: – Who do you believe will be effective backups at left tackle? Give me your opinion on Scotty Cooper's progress this spring and who do you believe will be our top two SAM linebackers? What is your opinion on the most pressing position need in recruiting and who favors us who would fit that bill? Great job by you guys this past year. Keep up the good work.
ARD: Thanks so much for the compliments.
Jamarcus Grant is your second-team left tackle day one of August Camp, though I'm not sure how much stickiness that has. He's not really a tackle, despite his better than average foot quickness and athleticism for a player his size. J.K. Jay is admittedly more comfortable at right tackle, but could get a look at left tackle in the fall. If they give him extensive time at the left position, and I reiterate "if," then he'll beat out Grant. If not, then they'll gamble with Grant as the No. 2 guy there. Danny Pearman did tell me last month that they could look at Cory Lambert at the position. But again, as you saw last fall, Cory really struggled at pass protection when Hairston was out of the lineup.
Scotty did get more accomplished this spring, largely due to the fact that he's building his lower body strength markedly for the first time in his collegiate career. Bear in mind that he never benefited from a red-shirt, and since his arrival to campus, he has endured two knee surgeries, so he's never really been 100-percent in his lower body, and therefore hasn't been able to really capitalize on strength training his lower body until this year. That will help his power and explosion obviously. How much? That remains to be seen. But he's a more confident player this off-season. I think that would be fair to say.
Scotty will line up at SAM this fall, but Buster Hunter also will get some work at the SAM position, as will Daniel Andrews. Daniel is a future career role player, obviously, so with Buster getting past his health issues, I expect him to be the second-team guy at SAM. The only wildcard would be Quandon Christian, who could get consideration for early playing time at SAM if he tears it up in camp. The odds are against him, as is the case with most true freshmen, but it's something we haven't closed the book on yet.
The most pressing need in recruiting is in my judgment offensive tackle. They're losing Cory Lambert and Jamarcus Grant from the rotation after the 2009 season. Jamal Medlin is no longer in the rotation, and Hairston departs after the 2010 season, leaving just Landon Walker and J.K. Jay. Brandon Thomas has the torque to play tackle, but it's not yet been decided where he'll draw work, according to my midweek interview with Danny. Easily, clearly, offensive tackle is their most pressing need in recruiting. They'll take at least two tackles, potentially three. And at this very early stage there are no tackles they have offered that they lead on.
John H. – Piedmont, SC: Point blank, do you think Dabo will get it done? As far as wins and losses are concerned? To stick around for a good long while? Everything he has done so far makes me want to say yes, but I don't want to get any false hopes. I also know he can't strap it up and play the game for them. If he could, I would bet the house in Vegas.
ARD: My friend, no one has an answer to that question. If they did, they'd bottle it up and sell it. What you do is look at the pieces that are in place, your personnel, facilities, returning starters, experience, lettermen, the schedule, your staff, off-season conditioning and chemistry, and you make a forecast.
We'll get into a lot of preseason analysis and predix-oriented type features in July and August but in a nutshell, let's look at the overall for a second. They've got eight starters back on defense from a unit that was 18th in the nation in total defense last season. They return four of five offensive line starters. They return C.J. Spiller, and they're replacing James Davis with a 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore who was the No. 1-rated big back recruit in the nation in 2008. They return Jacoby Ford, one of the fastest players in college football, they return all three tight ends who got work last season (Mike Palmer, Durrell Barry and Chad Diehl), and they replace Cullen Harper with two athletic quarterbacks who will give the position a different dimension, with Kyle Parker leading that race, unofficially, entering August Camp.
They do replace Mark Buchholz at kicker, a former walk-on, and Jimmy Maners, a former walk-on, at punter. Dawson Zimmerman, who started versus Alabama as a true freshman last season before enduring a pulled hamstring later that month, will start at punter, while the kicking position's front man will be either Spencer Benton, Richard Jackson or incoming preferred walk-on Chandler Catanzaro. They're also replacing Charles Roediger at snapper with Matt Skinner.
Your out-of-conference slate is Middle Tennessee, South Carolina, Coastal Carolina and TCU. The toughest games are TCU and South Carolina. TCU must travel to Death Valley, and must replace three starting offensive linemen, their starting tight end, two starting wideouts, their starting tailback, three of their four starting defensive linemen, all three starting linebackers and their starting free safety. Clemson, in other words, will be a lined favorite in that game, and will be a projection to win it in Death Valley.
As for South Carolina, Clemson has lost to South Carolina in football just eight times over the last 33 years. Since Danny Ford's last season, 1989, from 1990 to the present, Clemson is 14-5 against the Gamecocks. To belabor the obvious, Clemson usually wins this game. But for what it's worth, I still think facing South Carolina in Columbia in November will be their toughest out of conference game, and will possibly go down as a fourth quarter game.
The last time Clemson finished below 4-4 in the ACC was 11 years ago. The odds are not in favor of finishing below that this fall, considering your returning personnel. You draw Wake Forest, Virginia, Boston College and Florida State in Death Valley. You'll be a lined favorite versus Wake, UVA and BC. You have to face Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Maryland and Miami on the road.
If you take three of four at home, and at least one on the road, and win all four of the out-of-conference games – and I think you'll be favored in all four of your out of conference games – you're looking at 8-4. I could see 7-5 and I could see 9-3, but again, if you look at your returning personnel, the schedule, the strength of the schedule, I don't think it's asking too much from a first-year staff to split in the conference and beat a TCU team with a lot of holes at home, as well as a South Carolina team that Clemson has as you know dominated with regularity for over a century.
The pieces are in place for Dabo to be successful. If you look at 2005's recruiting to date, your academic support with Vickery Hall, a more aggressive approach on both offense and defense, the stage is set, in my view, for a better year than you experienced in 2008, and there's a foundation that's sufficient for sustained success on a higher level. Will it happen? I don't know. I'm merely saying the pieces are in place, the resources are there. Dabo has said numerous times, "We've got everything we need here at Clemson to be successful."
Lose Chris Hairston at left tackle and Jacoby Ford, and then you've got some significant issues to deal with. They do not have another left tackle developed in their program, and there is a significant fall-off at wideout past Jacoby, without a doubt. No one player is indispensable, because you've got 85 kids on scholarship, and you've recruited well, but Hairston and Ford are the closest that fit that bill for 2009.
Preston J. – Anderson, SC: Thanks for all the scoop and you guys keep up the great work. Just curious about four offensive linemen – Kalon Davis, the kid from Chester, Taylor Hudson, the guy from Mauldin, Reid Webster from Woodstock, GA and Eric Mack from St. Matthews. Where are we with them, and where would you rate them?
ARD: Thanks for the kudos. Davis entered the spring evaluation period as the No. 2 offensive lineman in-state, though the kid is trying to make a case for the top spot. I love his recently released highlight clips that were sent out Friday by Rivals.com. He's got to clean up his footwork, but for a 6-foot-5 ½, 353-pounder, he's got pretty good mobility and doesn't spend a lot of time on the ground. Low end, he's a guy that would draw a 5.7 marker from myself and Ryan, though Ryan is higher on him, and would probably give him a four-star marker.
Mack is the better player of the two at this time. I like his punch, I like his stabs, and he's a guy that dominates at the point of attack. He would be regarded as a national recruit in my view and in Ryan's. Clemson gained some ground there with his visit earlier this spring, but Clemson is not in the forefront there. It's Clemson and Alabama at the top for Davis. And Ryan mentioned yesterday he heard some rumblings of Auburn potentially making a move with Davis. If Bama doesn't offer Davis, Clemson stands to be the team to beat, as of today.
As for Hudston and Webster, those are not prospects we're tracking. Ryan hasn't interviewed either. Clemson is not offering either one of those prospects.
Don H. – Clemson, SC: Do you see J.K. Jay ultimately being a second-team offensive tackle sometime this fall? #2, who in your opinion could come out of nowhere (offensively or defensively) and make contributions this fall? Maybe an under the radar guy? And #3, do you see us leaning more on tight ends this year than in the past because of the lack of proven playmakers at wideout, especially in the first half of the season?
ARD: If they commit to playing Jay this fall, yes, I do think he'll ultimately work as a second-team player, whether it be at left or right tackle.
Offensively, statistically speaking, production-wise, a few guys that I expect to make significant contributions are Marquan Jones, a rising sophomore wideout, Dalton Freeman, a rising red-shirt freshman and Andre Ellington, a rising red-shirt freshman. There are several other young players who could make an impact, but those three, particularly Freeman and Jones, could find themselves in starting roles.
Defensively, Rashard Hall is a guy who could come from out of nowhere to contend for significant minutes. Tig Willard will be a two-deep guy at backer. Spencer Adams has a chance to make a significant impact, coming off a red-shirt.
I don't necessarily see Clemson leaning on its tight ends for production in the passing game so much as I do for the running game. With four starters back on the offensive front, with Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham gone at wideout and the fact that you're replacing your starting quarterback, what's projected to work the best, the earliest is your running game, obviously, so I think that's what they'll lean on. Chad Diehl, who is an outstanding short-yardage/goal line blocker but not as strong in space, will be a major factor in their run game as a blocker, as will Rendrick Taylor, who will get a few carries in short-yardage situations.
Alex S. – Apex, NC: Two questions. Who do you think are some of the instate prospects that Clemson might offer during the upcoming spring evaluation period? #2., There is a lot of talk about Clemson needing to improve their recruiting presence in Georgia, but we failed to sign anyone in Florida last year. Do you think that the new staff will be able to go into Florida and be as successful as the old one was?
ARD: They just made a move on Bruce Ellington last week, as we first reported on Tigerillustrated.com. Kendrick Frazier is a guy Ryan introduced to our readers in the first week in March. He's not as tall as they anticipated, otherwise they might have offered when he was on campus last month. But the film checks out. He's a guy they'll watch closely this spring. Jerrell Priester is a kid they'll look at closely, as well as Sheldon Robinson. As for whether they'll offer, that remains to be seen. I didn't think they'd move on Ellington as fast as they did or Jake Nicolopulos, so anything is possible.
Clemson's staff is essentially treating Georgia like an instate territory. It's been a long-time coming. They haven't really had a lot of success in the state with regularity in over a decade, so it's an area they need to improve in obviously. Florida is somewhat of a wildcard. I think a lot of Clemson fans were spoiled with the acquisitions of DeAndre McDaniel, who was 10th in that state, and C.J. Spiller, who was first. That's a rarity and was the exception, for Clemson, and quite frankly for any non-Florida program.
They won't ever go down to Florida and beat out Florida, Florida State and Miami on kids time after time. But no program will. You can go in there and get a national kid or two, but not time after time. But it is an area of emphasis obviously. Kevin Steele knows every inch of South Florida, and I'd be surprised if he came up empty handed. Jeff Scott has an area that he's got some help with, given his father's experience in the state and Dabo Swinney's, considering Dabo recruited the Greater Jacksonville area while an assistant for Clemson. So they've got the right guys in place, in my opinion.
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