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June 22, 2005

Tigers starting fast

Two of the top four prospects in South Carolina, the No. 2 player in Illinois and a top 15 player from Alabama in an absolutely loaded year in that state.

Not a bad start for a team that went 6-5 a season ago and missed a bowl game for the first time since 1998.

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Lou Holtz to Steve Spurrier handoff at the University of South Carolina, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden has been quietly building a program in the northwest corner of the Palmetto State that could be poised to challenge in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The momentum of wins over Florida State and Tennessee in 2003 and Miami (Fla.) in 2004 have shown that Clemson is capable, at least at certain times, of defeating some of the top programs in the country. That success on the field, combined with a multi-million dollar upgrade of facilities, have Bowden and his Tigers making their mark on the recruiting trail.

The recruiting success started when Clemson was putting the finishing touches on the Class of 2005. Finishing with the nation's No. 17 class, Clemson inked highly-touted running back James Davis from Atlanta and took four-star linebacker Antonio Clay from Jeffersonville, Ga., from Oklahoma at the last minute.

In addition to Clay and Davis, Clemson inked four-star Florida cornerback Chris Chancellor and in-state athlete Rendrick Taylor, who could help at a variety of positions, in 2005.

It was a solid end to the recruiting season for the Tigers, who have seen several big-name prospects slip through their fingers down the stretch in recent years. Players who could have made a difference like defensive lineman Hivera Green, an in-state three-star prospect who favored Clemson through the majority of the process before deciding to sign with Virginia Tech, or wide receiver Mike McIntosh, who switched to Florida on Signing Day 2004. Offensive lineman Eric Young broke the hearts of Tigers fans in the closing moments of the 2003 recruiting season when he signed with Tennessee.

After closing strong last year, the Tigers have kept the momentum going as the Clemson staff has used an outstanding June to get off to a great start for the Class of 2006.

The first commitment came June 1 from four star two-way lineman Jamie Cumbie of Morris, Ill. Cumbie, who moved to Morris from Andrews, S.C., two years ago, is the Land of Lincoln's No. 2 overall prospect and the No. 54 overall prospect in the country. He chose Clemson over Notre Dame.

Defensive back Byron Maxwell, the top defensive back in the pre-evaluation South Carolina Top 30, was the next to fall, pledging to the Tigers on June 8. Maxwell, the No. 4 overall prospect in the Palmetto State, suffered an ACL injury just before making his pledge.

Alabama defensive end Deantwan Whitehead was the next to fall. Whitehead, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound jumbo athlete, gave a verbal commitment to Clemson on Monday. Whitehead, the No. 17 prospect in the preseason Alabama Top 40, can be considered a soft commitment at this time as he has told some media outlets that he will take all of his official visits.

Whitehead attended the Clemson prospect camp last weekend.

Clemson landed two more big in-state prospects this week. South Carolina's No. 2 prospect Ricky Sapp, the nation's second-ranked weakside defensive end prospect, committed to the Tigers on Tuesday. Sapp, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder with great speed and quickness, is the nation's No. 42 overall prospect and chose Clemson over Georgia, Florida State and North Carolina State.

Both Sapp and Whitehead are fast for their size, something that new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will be able to utilize down the road.

Wednesday, the Tigers offered South Carolina quarterback Michael Wade, the No. 18 prospect in the preseason South Carolina top 30 and quite possibly the Palmetto State's top signal caller in this class. Clemson quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Rob Spence scouted Wade and liked what he saw from the Greer, S.C., prospect.

When the Tigers came around with an offer this week, Wade committed on the spot. It came as no surprise given Wade's family ties to the school. His father, Mike, was a member of Clemson's 1981 national championship team.

While his name wasn't mentioned in the same breath as Mitch Mustain or Matthew Stafford, Wade's commitment could become rather significant for Clemson fans. Under Bowden, the Tigers have made a living off of lightly-regarded quarterback recruits developing into superstars.

Current signal caller Charlie Whitehurst was a three-star rated recruit coming out of Chattahoochee High in suburban Atlanta and now is regarded as one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC and with a good senior season could be a top NFL draft pick.

Before Whitehurst took over the job, Woody Dantzler shined in Bowden's system from 1999-2001. While he was recruited heavily, most schools didn't think Dantzler, who has played a variety of positions other than quarterback in the NFL, would ever take a snap as he seemed more suited for another position.

"To win in the ACC you have to start from the ground up and that means you have to recruit successfully," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree said. "Clemson has gotten off to a great start by bolting out of the gates with a good foundation that could among the best in the nation when signing day rolls around."

In addition to the rising stars in Clemson's 2006 recruiting class, there are several assistant coaches on the staff who are making a name for themselves in the recruiting wars.

The coach whose star may be rising faster than any is outside linebackers coach Ron West. West, a Clemson graduate, was responsible for turning Clay down the stretch last season and was the lead guy on Sapp.

Clemson recruiting coordinator/linebackers coach David Blackwell was responsible for reeling in Cumbie and Wade. Blackwell was a highly-regarded recruiter at Pittsburgh before joining the Clemson staff prior to the 2003 season and has continued to land some of the Tigers' top targets since joining Bowden's staff.

Wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney, one of Rivals.com's top 25 recruiters in 2005, was responsible for Whitehead's commitment while running backs coach Burton Burns and offensive line coach Brad Scott have long been considered among the top recruiters in the Southeast.

Should Clemson put together a strong class this year to go with last year's crop, it will go a long way toward helping to raise the talent level to that of ACC contenders Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech so that the Tigers can expect to challenge for the conference title year in and year out. That very well could happen as in addition to the early commitments, the Tigers also are on the early list of several remaining top prospects in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.









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