Previewing Clemson

Charlie Whitehurst

North Carolina (2-7, 0-6) faces the Clemson Tigers (5-4, 3-3) this Saturday at noon in Kenan Stadium. This contest is a crucial one for both teams, but for different reasons.

North Carolina has not won a home football game this season. Here's our last game, at home, coming up now," head coach John Bunting said at his Tuesday press conference. "The DeFonte Coleman's, Ronald Brewer's, Zach Hilton's, Chesley Border's and Sam Aiken's are playing their last game here at home. I know that it's meaningful for them and I know they would loved to close with a win, and so would I. I'd love to give our fans at win at home."

Meanwhile, Clemson has not had the type of season its fans expected. Although it is ridiculous, some have even questioned Tiger head coach Tommy Bowden's job security based on the four Tiger losses this season. A loss to the Tar Heels would place more pressure on the Tiger's head man.

The Offense

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the Tar Heels would be preparing to face Willie Simmons (6-1, 195, Sr.) as the Clemson quarterback.

Simmons is someone very familiar to UNC fans. In the last match-up between the two teams in Kenan Stadium, Simmons came in to replace an injured Woodrow Dantzler and proceeded to torch the Heels to the tune of 10 of 18 for 228 yards and four touchdowns (a Tiger record).

The Tiger offense under Simmons this year has been plagued by turnovers, resulting in a change at the helm by Tommy Bowden. Charlie Whitehurst (6-4, 200, Rs-Fr) has replaced Simmons as the starter.

"Turnovers continued to happen so we made a change," Bowden said. "I think there is a fine line in how you handle that. Hopefully we handled it right as a staff."

It turned out well last week for the Tigers, as Whitehurst was named the ACC Offensive Back of the Week for his four touchdown effort against Duke. Whitehurst completed 34 of 52 passes for 420 yards in his first career start, set all-time school single game records for completions and yards, and tied the school record for touchdown passes in a game. His 414 yards of total offense was fourth best in school history. Asked what Whitehurst brings to the position, Bowden said, "Height, arm, and his composure are his best attributes. Pocket presence is something every quarterback must have and he has it."

They like their receivers tall at Clemson, and Whitehurst has some talented ones at his disposal. Kevin Youngblood (6-5, 210, Jr.) and J.J. McKelvey (6-4, 210, Sr.) are productive receivers for the Tigers, both with 44 catches each so far this season. They are joined by Derrick Hamilton (6-4, 200, So.) who leads the ACC in all-purpose running, and has 39 catches this year. Hamilton returns punts for the Tigers, and has averaged nearly twelve yards a return. Airese Curry (5-11, 175, So.) sees the field often in Clemson's multiple receiver sets and has two touchdown catches this season.

Clemson has not had a productive running attack this season, averaging only 116 yards per game. Clemson's leading rusher, Yusef Kelly (6-0, 220, So.) is averaging 49 yards per game, and the Clemson rushing attack averages only 3.3 yards per carry. Kelly is a receiving threat, having caught 13 passes this season. Bernard Rambert (6-0, 210, Sr.) is the starting tailback, and has 270 rushing yards this year.

The reasons for the lack of a running game are many, but injuries sustained by the offensive line are perhaps the most significant. Starting offensive linemen Derrick Brantley (6-6, 280, Sr.) and Nick Black (6-5, 280, Jr.) both had season-ending ACL tears.

Left tackle Gary Byrd (6-4, 309, Gr.),a two-year starter for the Tigers, is the only experienced member of the offensive. None of the remaining members of the Tiger offensive line had a career start prior to this season. Cedric Johnson (6-4, 318, So.) lines up at left guard. Jermym Chester (6-2, 289, Jr.) plays center for the Tigers. On the right side of the line Gregory Walker (6-5, 330, Jr.) lines up at guard, and William Henry (6-4, 276, Gr.) plays tackle.

Clemson may split time between Ben Hall (6-5, 240, So.) and Bobby Williamson (6-3, 246) at the tight end position. Hall has 10 catches this year and Williamson has three.

This has been one of Bowden's least productive offenses overall. The Tigers are dead last in the ACC in total offense (354.78 yards per game) and average 26 points per game, sixth in the league.

The Defense

The Clemson defense is lead by its linebacking corps which features Rodney Thomas (6-0, 225, Jr.) and John Leake (6-1, 225, Sr.). It is a usually a sign of a good defense when the linebackers are the leading tacklers, and that is the case with the Tigers. Thomas leads the Tigers in tackles with 114 tackles while Leake has 108 stops to his credit. The fourth leading tackler (59 tackles) on the Clemson defense is also a linebacker, Eric Sampson (6-3, 201, So.). Both Thomas and Leake were starters last season.

The Clemson defense is also strong at the defensive tackle spot, led by Nick Eason (6-4, 295, Gr.) who has seven tackles for loss and six sacks this season, along with 14 quarterback pressures. The other starting defensive tackle, Donnell Washington (6-6, 315, So.) sprained an ankle last week at Duke and is currently listed as questionable to play against UNC. If he is not able to go, he will likely be replaced by Dejuan Polk (6-2, 285, Jr.) who has seen significant action this season.

The defensive end positions are manned by two fifth-year players, Khaleed Vaughn (6-4, 260, Gr.) and Bryant McNeal (6-5, 236, Sr.). McNeal leads all Clemson defenders in tackles-for-loss with eight, and has five sacks to his credit. Vaughn has six tackles-for-loss and four sacks.

The Tiger secondary features cornerback Brian Mance (5-11, 185, Sr.) who has five interceptions and eight pass breakups this year. At the other corner, Justin Miller (5-11, 180) starts as a true freshman. Miller has four picks to his credit and has six pass breakups.

Free safety Eric Meekins has had a solid year for the Tigers, ranking third on the team in tackles with 69 and he also has an interception to his credit. The strong safety position, or "Rover" in Tiger terminology, is manned by Altroy Bodrick (6-1, 215, Gr.) who 29 tackles this year, six of them for a loss – the Tigers use Bodrick often in blitz packages.

The Tiger defense is a veteran unit, composed of six fifth-year players and another fourth-year player. Experience counts, and so it is no surprise that the Tigers are ranked the third-best defense in the ACC overall. If they have any vulnerability, it is against the run where the Tigers yield an average of 162 yards per game.

The Prognosis

Before the Virginia game, in other words, when Darian Durant was healthy, this looked like a decent match up for the Tar Heels. On offense, the Heels might have been able to move the ball and score enough points to be competitive. Granted, the Tigers have a solid defensive unit, but they are not bulletproof, having surrendered 69 points in their last two games.

The Tar Heels, however, have only been able to manage one touchdown in the two games since Durant was lost to injury. The Tar Heels have still not discovered a running game, though true freshman Mahlon Carey (6-1, 210) has shown flashes of ability. It seems that even when the Heels' offense does begin to move the ball, pre-snap penalties or other mental mistakes wind up killing any promising drives.

Defensively, it would be hard to imagine a worse outing than that witnessed last weekend against Maryland. With Whitehurst tearing up the Clemson record books in his first start last week, it could get just as ugly this weekend. It adds to the woes on defense when the Tar Heel offense is unable to move the ball at all, puts the UNC defense back on the field quickly, and constantly yields up poor field position.

If the Tar Heels are to have any chance, they must find a way to run the ball effectively and take pressure off UNC quarterback C.J. Stephens. Clemson does not have a great run defense; the question is whether the Heels can exploit that weakness.

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