Still high off last year’s surprising mid-season turnaround and Peach Bowl victory, Clemson, with 14 returning starters, expects to build off last year’s momentum in Death Valley.
“We have to be more consistent from one season to the next,” said head coach Tommy Bowden, who is in his sixth year at the helm. “The way we finished last year, some people are putting the ‘Clemson’s Back’ headline on our season. We won’t be back until we show more consistency.”
Among the returning starters is quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, the offensive catalyst for the past two seasons. During those years, Whitehurst put up monster numbers. He is only the second quarterback in ACC history to record 5,000 yards before the end of his sophomore year.
With coaches favoring the passing game, the offense rests almost entirely on Whitehurt’s right arm, but this season the signal caller will be without his favorite targets from last year. Clemson lost its top two receivers to the NFL, and Airese Currie will step into the primary receiving role. To match last year’s passing game, the Tiger will have to develop young wide receivers to keep Whitehurt’s options open.
Clemson hopes to have two options on the ground, but, at least at the start, the Tigers will rely on senior Yusef Kelly. Duane Coleman, the leading ground gainer from a year ago, broke his foot in preseason practice and is expected to return in the middle of the season.
Although Whitehurst and the passing game have been Clemson’s hallmarks in the past, its defense may be the team’s greatest strength in 2004. Highlighted by the No. 2 secondary in the ACC that returns all four starters, the defense should be able to at least contain some of the conference’s juggernaut offensive units.
Any number of individuals are strong candidates for postseason awards including linebacker Leroy Hill who was second in the nation with 27 tackles for loss in a breakout 2003. Part of the celebrated secondary crew is Justin Miller, a candidate for the Thorpe Award given to the nation’s best corner.
The Tigers face what may be the toughest ACC schedule, having to play the league’s top-three teams,—Florida State, Miami and Virginia—on the road. If Clemson fails to fill holes on offense, even its strong defense may struggle to keep last year’s momentum going.