Clemson University

Season up in air for Tigers' Spence

CLEMSON -- The toys in Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence's chest continue piling up.

Two seasoned star tailbacks, a collection of receivers that cover the gamut of coveted skills (speed, height and bulk) and an NFL-bound left tackle are at Spence's disposal.

General skepticism about Clemson's potential circulates around the growing pains of breaking in another first-year quarterback as well as a revamped offensive line.

Yet there are some who wonder whether it matters who the pieces are in Spence's offense, a theory that could be supported by, among other factors, his admittedly conservative nature.

The thought can be construed as compliment or criticism. In Clemson's case, it serves as intriguing background to an offseason purportedly filled with schematic tinkering.

The 2007 season appears set to either validate Spence's former billing as a mad scientist -- or conversely, underline the notion his offense's statistical successes are just that, a product of playing the calculated percentages.

"We need to be in the constant position to threaten the defense with big plays," Spence said. "That should be a natural progression of our offense."

"There have been some changes, some things we've done different schematically and some focuses that we've taken that are going to look different, that I would think would probably look very, very different to the fans in the stands. But I'm not free to talk about those things right now. I'm telling players not to even talk about them."

Therein lies the mystery of whether Spence has undergone an identity crisis or has expanded his schematic taste for illusion and confusion.

Contrary to Spence's vague nature, he as well as his players have rather freely discussed the possibilities -- perhaps too freely.

"We have a lot of weapons and a lot of guys who deserve the ball," receiver Aaron Kelly said. "But Coach Spence comes up with a lot of stuff."

It is no secret dynamic tailback C.J. Spiller has been used in practices as a slot receiver, a la Reggie Bush.

In reprising his role as the jack-of-all-trades threat, receiver Rendrick Taylor is now getting sporadic carries out of the backfield.

Spence was the first to reveal the Tigers would implement the sets Arkansas made popular last year, with Spiller or tailback James Davis lining up at quarterback in the shotgun and running the read option.

"I challenged myself to go out and research some things that might benefit this group," Spence said. "So I spent a lot of time watching film of different teams, both NFL and college, and maybe do some things our league hasn't looked at as much."

Spence exchanged game tapes with Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis, considered likely to land a head coaching job after this season.

He visited friends with the Indianapolis Colts, which incorporate the one-back sets and zone-blocking schemes Spence prefers. And never afraid to add another tight end into the lineup, he tapped into the mind of New York Giants assistant Mike Pope, who has coached the position for 22 NFL seasons.

His ability to manipulate Xs and Os is seen as the primary reason Spence received job offers at Alabama and Minnesota last spring, and those close to Spence would not be surprised if that concentration led him into NFL circles down the road.

On the other hand, insiders claim Spence carried a loaded bag of tricks last year as well, only to play it safe against opponents -- perhaps in part because he might have felt handcuffed by his quarterback play.

"As a coach, the one thing I went back to was I'm going to do my very best to coach that quarterback fundamentally," Spence said. "I have a young player again, so I'm going to be on top of every single detail.

"Not that I wasn't last year, but I'm really going to work that quarterback hard, and I'm really going to focus on that. I'm really going to hold him accountable for doing things the right way."

So accountable that it begs a question.

Will redshirt junior Cullen Harper, the starting quarterback for the Sept. 3 season opener, appear the same player who showcased sufficient arm strength and confidence in the spring?

Or will Clemson's quarterback -- be it Harper or eventually freshman Willy Korn -- be programmed to always settle for the safe play?

Asked if he agreed with Spence's self-assessment on how he is managing quarterbacks, Harper said, "He has a system and teaches it very well and wants you to do exactly that. He's always been detail-oriented and intense. So he's always been like that."

Consistent with Spence's public approach, he believes there is a middle ground where his quarterbacks can be aggressive and efficient.

The curiosity is how Spence plans to balance both.

"You want to cater to the abilities and special talents of the guys you have," Spence said. "Then obviously I'd like to continue to employ the type of system we've used the last seven years where I've been.

"It's an ongoing developing of what you do in our business. The game of football is now trying to match personnel versus personnel and trying to gain an advantage through personnel, either formationally or because you can get a match-up. We have a system that can change readily and take advantage of the talent on tap."