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Fighting Tigers hope to put '04's embarrassing end behind them

The 2005 Clemson Tigers hope to follow in the footsteps of the 2004 Tigers by qualifying for a bowl game. Unlike last year’s squad, however, this year’s unit hopes actually to participate in postseason play.

In the final game of last season, several Clemson players partook in an embarrassing fight with the South Carolina Gamecocks and as punishment, the two universities decided to forfeit their bowl bids.

But with many of its key components returning, Clemson has every reason to believe it will get a bid this season and improve upon its 6-5 record of a year ago.

Charlie Whitehurst, one of the nation’s most experienced quarterbacks, will be back at the helm of a Tiger offense that was ineffective much of last season. The Tigers finished the season ranked a disheartening 100th in the nation in total offense. A Davey O’Brien Award candidate, given to the nation’s top signal-caller, Whitehurst will be the key to Clemson’s air-focused offense in 2005.

“I appreciate Coach Bowden taking responsibility for my struggles last season. But I think everybody needs to take responsibility,” Whitehurst said. “Individually, I didn’t play very well in 2004. Again, I don’t think we were very good as an offensive team.”

In order to become a strong unit, Whitehurst will need his surrounding players to improve. His top target, first team All-ACC receiver Airese Curry graduated and took his team-leading 61 catches with him. Chansi Stuckey, a junior, will be called upon to lead the receiving corps.

Tailback Reggie Merriweather averaged 4.9 yards per carry, but could only manage 670 rushing yards for the season, which will need to improve to establish an effective rushing unit. If he falters, Clemson has several effective backups waiting in the wings.

The skill areas will get help from newcomers to the team. At receiver, Aaron Kelly, who redshirted last year, has impressed his coaches and teammates in spring practices and scrimmages. Several other freshmen are expected to play roles, as well, Bowden said.

“I think a lot of players will see action this fall, and that includes the freshman class,” Bowden said after his team’s final scrimmage. “We still have some decisions to make, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we played seven or eight true freshman this year.”

On the other side of the ball, the team will try to cope with losing cornerback Justin Miller, a first-round draft pick in 2005, by shifting its defensive scheme.

“This year will be more zone-oriented,” cornerback Tye Hill said. “Last year was more press-man coverage, but we’re going to have a totally different defense this year.”

Defensive leadership will come from the Tigers’ experienced front four. Senior linemen Charles Bennett and Trey Tate will anchor a squad that held its opponents to 20 points or less in each of its final six games a year ago .

But what will likely determine Clemson’s success this season will be its ability to use its home-field advantage. The Tigers will face off with Texas A&M, Miami, Boston College and Florida State in Death Valley, all of which are ranked in the preseason top-25 polls.

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