CLEMSON -- As Clemson players filed out after Tuesday's practice, senior linebacker Tramaine Billie drove up to the ramp leading to the locker room.
Billie slapped hands and offered a ride to sophomore Kavell Conner, acting as if the two had not seen each other in a substantial period of time.
It had been only more than a week since Billie last practiced with his teammates, yet Tuesday brought the formal separation the former Dreher High School standout had come to dread in recent weeks.
Confirming what had been speculated for days, Clemson announced that three senior starters -- Billie, fellow linebacker Nick Watkins and right tackle Christian Capote -- will be academically ineligible for the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl against No. 22 Auburn.
"It will be tough to watch the bowl game, but those guys are going to play well and do what they've got to do," Billie said. "Everything will be good."
Easy for Billie to say, although it remains to be seen whether such a rosy outlook will be harder for his and the other replacements to carry out.
As coach Tommy Bowden intimated, the academic casualties allows, for better and worse, No. 15 Clemson (9-3) to gain an even closer glimpse at its potential 2008 lineup, especially on defense.
The Tigers have been left with just three scholarship seniors on their two-deep depth chart, all starting offensive linemen.
Two of the three casualties will be replaced with players whose talent differential coaches would deem negligible. The only concern is whether the younger players' relative lack of experience will come with a cost.
"They've been in my office telling me they're as good as the starters anyway," Bowden said. "Now we'll find out."
Freshman Scotty Cooper is slated to replace Billie at strongside linebacker and arguably was performing as well before minor knee surgery sidelined him for the Wake Forest last month, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.
Redshirt freshman Chris Hairston, the heir apparent at right tackle, will make his first career start in place of Capote.
The biggest shoes will likely be filled by Conner and junior linebacker Antonio Clay, who stand to log the majority of snaps at Watkins' weakside linebacker spot.
Watkins, a three-year starter, has led the Tigers in tackles each of the last two seasons and finishes his career seventh on the school's all-time tackling list.
Before this season, Watkins said he was still coping with turmoil wrought when Hurricane Katrina flooded his New Orleans home. He brought his younger brother to live at his off-campus apartment this season.
Bowden said he does not know when a decision will be made or announced regarding the availability of junior middle linebacker Cortney Vincent, who was charged with DUI on Dec. 9.
If there is a silver lining to losing three veterans with a combined 77 career starts, Bowden said Clemson's core of young players now have glaring examples for what happens when they fail to fulfill their academic duties.
One player did not meet the school's requirement of six credit hours earned toward his major. Another did not complete the terms of an internship, his only requirement for graduation.
"Just disappointed those guys didn't qualify," Bowden said.
"I think they're learning about accountability, which is one thing even some adults don't understand. With responsibility goes accountability. They're learning firsthand exactly what that is."