Run blocking pushes Tigers higher

pstrelow@thestate.comNovember 20, 2009 

Conner eager to face home-state team; Steele swings clear of head games

CLEMSON - After holding Clemson running back C.J. Spiller to 18 yards on 14 carries last season, his season low for a per-carry average (1.3), Virginia's defense can find some hope in last year's 13-3 defeat.

The Tigers' run-blockers have.

"We've watched some games from last year, and it's unbelievable how much better we are," tight end Michael Palmer said. "We were bad."

Palmer finally expressed what most observers believed.

While several factors have played a hand in Clemson's offensive outburst the past five games, the least heralded is the gradual - if subtle - improvement the offensive line has made since sticking redshirt freshman Dalton Freeman at center and using a rotation at right guard and right tackle.

The Tigers are averaging 170.2 rushing yards per game this season, 58.7 more than a year ago. Their yards per carry is up to 4.6 from 3.4, and their sacks allowed per game has dropped from 2.5 to 1.8.

Saturday's game presents a different challenge in Virginia's 3-4 scheme, which can call for as many as five players along the front line.

The new scheme will require Clemson to employ an entirely different blocking scheme.

"Usually you're working double-teams with your guards and centers, and now it's more tackles and tight ends," guard Thomas Austin said. "Their objective on defense is to occupy two guys, so we have to get our combo blocks down."

Virginia's past two opponents adapted well. Miami ran for 268 yards on 49 carries two weeks ago, while Boston College back Montel Harris gained 151 yards on 38 carries a week ago.

Home fires burning. Redshirt senior linebacker Kavell Conner may as well be the dinosaur of the defense - he was recruited to Clemson two defensive coordinators ago, lured from Richmond, Va., by former coordinator John Lovett. Conner stuck to his commitment after Lovett was fired.

Conner, who chose the Tigers over offers from Pittsburgh and Oklahoma, said he only was mildly pursued by his home-state Cavaliers. He starred at running back and safety in high school.

"My high school coach told me they said I wasn't fast enough to play running back," he said. "So that's always been a little motivation."

Focus group. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is no advocate of preaching to his players about avoiding a possible letdown.

For one, that leads to players putting even more emotional pressure on themselves, taking away concentration on the Xs and Os. Plus it breaks away from the weekly routines designed to teach players to treat all opponents equally.

"There's so much technical stuff to go over that we can't go into Psychology 101 for 30 minutes every day for that to be addressed," Steele said.

"It's not the lottery, where you go buy a ticket and sit in front of the TV and say, 'Boy, if I keep watching TV, there's No. 1 and No. 2 ...' You'd better go to work. That's where the real money comes from. ... You don't have to fall off a truck but so many times until you start learning from successful people what you need to focus on."

Extra points. Coach Dabo Swinney said Thursday that he will not decide whether Richard Jackson or Spencer Benton is the starting placekicker until pre-game warm-ups. "Still dead-even," Swinney said. ... Swinney, who turns 40 today, said he hasn't wasted time pondering how far the program has come this year. "It's hard for me to think like that," he said. "We lose this game Saturday, and we're just a 7-4 team that had a good run, that didn't finish. We've got work to do."

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