Clemson defense eyes Yellow Jackets

Clemson's Phillip Merling blocked a Georgia Tech pass attempt last season, a feat the Tigers hope to accomplish again this year with more consistency.
Clemson's Phillip Merling blocked a Georgia Tech pass attempt last season, a feat the Tigers hope to accomplish again this year with more consistency.

CLEMSON -- There may be only one ACC team that would claim Georgia Tech might be a tougher opponent without star receiver Calvin Johnson, last year's No. 2 overall NFL draft pick.

Clemson has felt compelled to throw a perfectly effective game plan out the window.

The Tigers kept Johnson in check for two straight years, including becoming the first team to hold him without a catch in last year's 31-7 annihilation.

Consequently, the Yellow Jackets scored a combined 17 points in those meetings, but personnel turnover has all but ensured Clemson will try a different means to the end in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game in Atlanta.

"We don't have some of the things on them we've had the past two years at our disposal," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.

Namely Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball, whose sub 6-foot stature encouraged the taller Tigers to clog the box with defenders and force Ball to roll outside, where he was an ineffective passer.

Coupled with double teams on his favorite target, Clemson made the Yellow Jackets non-dimensional.

Ball is gone, too, although his replacement, junior Taylor Bennett, has been ineffective thus far -- as evidenced by Georgia Tech ranking next-to-last in the nation in third-down conversion percentage.

The team's top returning receiver, James Johnson, has been limited lately with an undisclosed injury, leading Bennett to hone in on a pair of 6-3 receivers -- freshman Demaryius Thomas and sophomore Greg Smith, a prep teammate of Clemson running back James Davis.

"We're going to have to play honest, where the last couple of years we've been able to work on one guy," Koenning said. "I think the quarterback is much more adept than in years past."

• HERE COMES THE ROOSTER: The early bird may get the rushing yards, but tailback C.J. Spiller wouldn't mind his sleep.

Spiller rooms with Davis at the team hotel and was startled a year ago when Davis jumped out of bed at 5 a.m. and let out a gusto yell in anticipation of Clemson's game against his hometown Georgia Tech.

Davis, who rushed for a career-best 216 yards that game, is already talking about turning the lights out at 8:30 p.m. Friday. And Spiller figures setting an alarm is pointless.

"I'll just try to block it out and sleep a little longer," Spiller said.

• JUST FOR KICKS: If Georgia Tech place-kicker Travis Bell would have followed through on his pledge, he and Clemson kicker Mark Buchholz would be teammates -- on the Tigers' soccer team.

Bell, who tops Buchholz as the ACC's leading scorer, played for Clemson coach Trevor Adair on an Olympic development team and committed to the Tigers before walking on to the Jackets' football team.

• EXTRA POINTS: Clemson special teams standout Chris Wade, sidelined last weekend with a broken left arm, has been practicing with a thick cast and said he should be able to play Saturday. ... Coach Tommy Bowden reiterated that freshman quarterback Willy Korn (shoulder soreness) is healthy enough to play.