ATLANTA -- Vic Koenning has been polishing his babysitting skills this week as Clemson prepares for Monday's Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Tigers' defensive coordinator was spotted in a downtown mall with his three young children. Then there have been his duties working a couple of fresh-faced linebackers into Clemson's starting rotation.
A simple banging of his fist on a food-court table took care of any unruly behavior by his three sons. There is no such simple solution for teaching a crash course in Linebacker 101 to his other youngsters.
"Obviously, it's not the best-case scenario," Koenning says of being forced to give sophomore Kavell Conner and freshman Scotty Cooper their second career starts in a bowl game.
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Conner will start at weakside linebacker in place of senior Nick Watkins, who led Clemson in tackles during the regular season with 118. Cooper will start at strongside linebacker in place of senior Tramaine Billie, who was third on the team with 79 tackles. Watkins and Billie were suspended from the team for academic reasons.
That is a boatload of experience Clemson is giving up. The two are big reasons the Tigers rank sixth nationally in total defense, 10th in scoring defense, 13th in passing defense and 20th in rushing defense. Watkins played in 48 games for Clemson, including 36 starts, and Billie played in 44 games, including 29 starts.
By comparison, Conner and Cooper have combined to play in 36 games. Their only starting assignments came this season against Central Michigan.
"You just kind of play the hand you're dealt," says coach Tommy Bowden, who has refused to dwell on the losses. "I'm not going to waste sleep over it. You work real hard to get here, and I'm sure not going to waste any sleep over that."
Apparently Bowden is leaving the loss of sleep to Conner and Cooper, both of whom expressed nervous excitement about their starting assignments.
"I'm pretty sure on game day there will be a little bit of butterflies," Conner said.
"I'm just anxious and excited," Cooper said.
Although the two were recruited to Clemson as linebackers, both were highly touted running backs in high school, Conner in Richmond, Va., and Cooper in Lake City. Conner rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his final three seasons and scored 56 touchdowns, including 25 as a senior. Cooper managed 495 yards rushing in high school and scored seven touchdowns.
While Conner might have the most experience at linebacker of the two, it is his position that probably holds the most concern for Koenning and Bowden.
"(Watkins) had a lot of experience," Koenning says. "He helped get the (middle) linebackers in the right position a lot, especially early in the year. I know those (middle linebackers) counted on him a lot to make sure we got in the right situations because we were very multiple with our calls. That's going to fall on Kavell Conner now."
There probably will not be as big a drop-off with Cooper replacing Billie. Cooper was pushing Billie for the starting assignment by midseason. Then he sustained an injury in the ninth game against Duke, sat out one game and played 11 snaps during the final three games.
As bad as the linebacker situation seems, it could be worse. Bowden has not announced his decision on whether middle linebacker Cortney Vincent will play. Vincent was arrested for DUI earlier this month.
Vincent has practiced with the first team in the postseason, including the three sessions in Atlanta. If Vincent was not going to play, you have to believe Bowden and Koenning would be working backup Antonio Clay into the practice rotation, which they have not.
"There's nothing that leads us to believe that's going to happen," Koenning said when asked if Vincent could be sidelined for the game.
Should Vincent not play, Clay would be an able replacement. He has 37 games and 12 starting assignments to his credit.
If Clemson had more depth at its safety position, it possibly could move additional support to linebacker. But Koenning said it is too late to make either position changes or tactical adjustments.
Instead, Koenning has two more days of babysitting duties -- with his sons as well as his linebacker corps.