Clemson University

Tigers' receivers holding onto ball

CLEMSON -- Once Clemson made a concerted effort to develop the downfield passing game, its receivers did not drop the ball.

Through three games and 80 passing attempts, position coach Dabo Swinney has branded the receiving corps with only two drops entering Saturday's game at N.C. State.

Oddly enough, both were by leading receiver Aaron Kelly, including one on a slant against Furman in which the lanky 6-foot-5, 180-pound junior was crunched by two defenders when the ball hit his hands.

"I've been having to search a little bit," Swinney said. "My expectation is we have to make the routine catches all the time, the impossible ones most of the time."

With first-year starting quarterback Cullen Harper exhibiting pinpoint accuracy, the receivers have not been required to contort for too many grabs.

Yet the unheralded and understated aspect about the No. 15 Tigers' newfound passing proficiency is Harper's targets have gotten open and fulfilled their end of the bargain.

In particular, junior Tyler Grisham, who struggled with drops last season, has been seamless and ranks second on the team in catches.

Then there's Kelly, who after failing to make the tough grabs a year ago has emerged as Harper's favorite target.

Kelly already has 14 catches -- nearly half of last year's total (30) -- and has snagged a touchdown in every game.

Dating to Clemson's bowl loss against Kentucky, he has caught a touchdown in four straight games, one shy of the school record. Derrick Hamilton registered TDs in five straight games in 2003.

"It's always fun to score," Kelly said. "I just hope it continues."

• THE BAKER'S DOZEN, TIMES 14.5 -- Senior linebacker Nick Watkins has conflicting feelings that N.C. State will be without tailback Toney Baker, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game.

Baker ran for a career-high 174 yards in Clemson's narrow 20-14 triumph last year.

In Baker's absence, junior Andre Brown has gone from splitting carries to being the featured back and arguably is the more talented of the two.

But Baker's success left Watkins with a bitter taste that has resurfaced while watching film.

"In a way, I'm like, 'Yeah, he's gone,'" Watkins said. "But in a way I wish I could tackle him a few times, you know what I mean?"

• SAFETY VALVES -- So much for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's desire to avoid using starting safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons for every snap, which the Tigers essentially did the second half of last season.

Playing time for Hamlin's backup, freshman DeAndre McDaniel, has gradually diminished, with Koenning saying he is searching for channels to motivate McDaniel in games and at practice.