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Out-of-town Q&A: Clemson

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Time to roll out a new feature this week: The Out-of-town Q&A.

I wish I could take credit for prompting this, but it was actually Larry Williams of the Charleston Post and Courier who suggested a blog swap earlier this week. By the way, here’s a link to his Tiger Tracks blog, which is a must-read to get up to speed on Tommy Bowden’s boys.

This, of course, is a fantastic plan, and I’ll see if I can keep this idea rolling in the weeks to come as Maryland dives deeper into its conference schedule.

As for this week, Williams provides some detailed insight on quarterback Cullen Harper’s start, the difference in tailback C.J. Spiller, the problems on the Tigers’ offensive line and more.

1. Cullen Harper already has nearly as many interceptions (four) as he did a year ago (six). What – if anything – is wrong with the senior quarterback?

LW: He’s hurt both shoulders — a first-degree AC sprain in his throwing shoulder, and a banged-up left shoulder suffered against N.C. State. He claims his throwing shoulder is recovered, and I tend to believe him because he has good velocity on his downfield throws. I do think, though, that he doesn’t appear as comfortable as he was last season. He’s staring down his receivers more and stepping into his throws less. A lot of this could be attributed to the problems up front. It’s hard to be supremely comfortable when you’re as young and inexperienced as Clemson is on the offensive line. Another possible explanation: Defenses are playing the pass more than they did last year, when Harper was an unknown commodity.

I don’t think Harper is playing poorly, though. Just not as well as he was last year.

2. The preseason uncertainty for Clemson seemed to center around inexperience at linebacker and especially offensive line. How much concern remains at those positions, even after three relatively easy (and predictable) victories?

LW: Major concern at both positions. Offensive line has been hit hard by injuries, to the point that one guy among the top 10 (center Thomas Austin) entered this season with legitimate experience. Running between the tackles is going to be tough, as is pass protection, but the Tigers should still be able to move the ball fairly well because of their speed and talent at the skill positions.

The linebackers are young and have been very tentative thus far. They were manhandled against Alabama, and I’m interested to see how they respond Saturday against Maryland’s physical running game. They have not taken on blocks well thus far, and that doesn’t bode well against the Terps’ guards and fullbacks.

3. Tailback C.J. Spiller is averaging 10 offensive touches in four games (32 rushes, 8 receptions). Is there any indication the elusive junior’s workload is going to grow as the season progresses, even if it’s in the passing game?

LW: Spiller has been a different back thus far. He’s running with aggression and attitude that were missing during a disappointing sophomore season. He knows the NFL folks are watching him closely.

I do see his role expanding. James Davis is usually the guy who grinds out the tough yards, but Spiller was given the ball more on a late, plodding drive against N.C. State. Given the problems on the offensive line, Spiller’s quickness and elusiveness might make him the better option at tailback in some situations. And he’s definitely a threat when they motion him out to receiver.

4. Much was made when balleyhooed in-state product Da’Quan Bowers opted to attend Clemson. Has the true freshman defensive end lived up to the recruiting hype?

LW: Definitely. He’s justified the accolades with his pass-rushing ability. He was one of the few bright spots in the debacle against Alabama. There are still some questions about his consistency and how well he holds up in run support, and we’ll get a good look at his progress Saturday. It’s early, sure, but I think it’d be fair to say he’s a mix between former Clemson ends Gaines Adams and Phillip Merling. He is potentially the total package. Not bad for a guy who was playing high school ball this time last year.

5. Slippery wideout Jacoby Ford broke his ankle in last year’s meeting with Maryland. How much does Clemson’s offense change just by having him back at full strength?

LW: Ford adds a different dimension to Clemson’s offense because of his speed. Last season, Tigers offensive coordinator Rob Spence incorporated the fake reverses and orbit motion stuff popularized by Wake Forest. When you’ve got a guy with Ford’s speed doing all that pre-snap motion, your linebackers and safeties have to honor him. I don’t think opposing defenses honored his replacements nearly as much after he went down last year. And he’s shown this year he’s more of a threat in the downfield passing game. He’s come a long way with pass catching and route running.

Patrick Stevens

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