CLEMSON -- Linebackers coach David Blackwell limited his one single use of the respect card to the beginning of Clemson's preseason, yet the moment still resonates among his pupils.
"Coach Blackwell started off early telling us that we're the question mark, and he's tired of seeing it everywhere," middle linebacker Brandon Maye said. "Basically, he laid it out there and said we're going to answer the question. That's what we're trying to do."
Beyond offensive line, the linebacker corps is typically cited as the Tigers' other significant weakness.
Blackwell must break in three new starters at a position No. 24 Alabama likely figures to challenge out of the gate in Saturday's opener at the Georgia Dome.
New Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain reputedly likes to incorporate multiple tight ends into his play-action passing game, so the second level of Clemson's defense expects to be targeted both in the running and passing departments.
"We know they're going to come out and try to run it at us early and see how we react to it," Maye said. "Anybody would."
The goal of Maye and his colleagues is to prove the linebackers are more than just a collection of names not just a collection of anybodies. There is not an established commodity in the bunch.
Maye, a redshirt freshman, will start at middle linebacker, with freshman Stanley Hunter and senior Josh Miller both logging backup snaps.
Sophomore Scotty Cooper gets the nod at strong-side linebacker, where second-string sophomore DeAndre McDaniel boasts the most game experience -- albeit as a former safety.
Junior Kavell Conner will start on the weak side and will be backed up by junior Jeremy Campbell.
The group owns a combined four career starts -- two apiece by Cooper and Conner, all the byproduct of punishment for other players.
Blackwell said it is impossible to forecast how his linebackers will fare because they largely have yet to be exposed to the big-game elements they will experience Saturday.
"You walk a fine line as a coach making sure they're doing what they're supposed to do, but you don't want robots," Blackwell said.
"I don't want a guy who's going to grade 100 percent every snap but doesn't make a play. You want them to trust their instincts, but at the same time they can't segment your defense and do their own thing."
Blackwell said Conner has emerged the past two weeks as the unit's leader and is displaying a newfound physical prowess he had otherwise hidden.
Coaches continue to try to harness Maye's exuberance into sustained focus, while Cooper and McDaniel complement each other on are viewed as compliments depending on whether the situation calls for a run or pass defense.
"As a group, the talent is definitely there," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "They have a want-to. I still think there's some thinking going on, that you'd hope at this time they could relax and just play. But I guess that's just the nature of the inexperience factor."
Not that Blackwell sees anything wrong with that, either.
As an East Carolina assistant, he went into the 1995 opener against Peyton Manning's Tennessee Vols with a pair of first-year freshman linebackers, and the Pirates lost a respectable 27-7. One of those linebackers was former NFL defensive lineman Rod Coleman.
In his first season as a Clemson assistant (2003), Blackwell said there was consternation about the lack of a middle linebacker until LeRoy Hill burst onto the scene. Once Hill left, there were similar reservations about Anthony Waters.
"It's probably not the first time we've had to answer questions at those positions," Blackwell said. "It's probably the first time we've had to answer all three at once.
"We still do some weird, stupid things. ... But I think they've prepped hard, and I think in their minds they're ready. I think they have some confidence."
The Clemson/Alabama game was not over in time to meet Herald deadlines. A story will run in Monday's edition of The Herald. For more, visit heraldonline.com