CLEMSON -- When a player dips into a funk the likes of what Clemson linebacker Tramaine Billie endured, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning usually finds blame in one of three areas:
Girl problems, family strife or academic stresses.
Billie, a redshirt senior out of Dreher High School, dismissed the first two with laughter.
While declaring this semester's courses are the hardest he has taken, Billie reverted to the same reason he offered a month ago: he has played too tense, fearing re-injury to the broken ankle that sidelined him all of last season.
The good news for both sides is Billie might have turned the corner heading into No. 25 Clemson's noon game Saturday at Duke.
He led the Tigers with a season-high 12 tackles -- one shy of his career best -- and chalked up his first sack of the year.
"The thing is, he has graded out pretty well in several games, but he hasn't made plays," position coach Ron West said. "He did that this time."
Just a week earlier, Koenning admitted Clemson had not achieved its projected success in generating a pass rush with blitzes -- the facet Billie was to supply in returning to the strongside linebacker spot.
As a result, Billie was blitzed just twice against Maryland. In this case, less generated more.
"Everything finally just clicked for me," Billie said. "I hate it came as late as it did, but maybe it's gotten me over that hump."
• OFF GUARD: While senior left guard Chris McDuffie (sprained ankle) remains a game-time decision on whether he will play, McDuffie is not expected to start Saturday's game.
Fellow senior Brandon Pilgrim, who has started the previous three games at right guard, would at least initially fill in at left guard, with converted sophomore center Barry Humphries logging his start at right guard.
• MANY HAPPY RETURNERS: The Tigers are about to transition from arguably one of the nation's fastest special teams returners to perhaps the tallest.
With sophomore receiver Jacoby Ford out for the season with a broken ankle, 6-foot-5 junior receiver Aaron Kelly will join tailback C.J. Spiller returning punts and kickoffs.
Teams tend to use smaller, shiftier skill players as return men, yet Kelly has previously fared OK in the role.
As a freshman, he mustered an 81-yard kickoff return against Georgia Tech and has a 24.9 yard average in 12 career returns.
"He's a strong runner, has great vision and has that knack for making people miss," said receivers coach Dabo Swinney, who oversees return men. "He finishes everything downhill and just doesn't hesitate."
Junior receiver Tyler Grisham and starting tailback James Davis are the kickoff return backups, while Grisham, freshman corner Marcus Gilchrist and freshman safety DeAndre McDaniel have gotten work as punt returners this week.
• EXTRA POINTS: Clemson has allowed just six passing touchdowns this season, tied with Georgia Tech for fewest in the conference (heading into the Jackets' Thursday night game against Virginia Tech). More impressive is that the longest scoring pass against the Tigers was 21 yards (Virginia Tech). Conversely, Duke receiver Eron Riley has five TD catches of 31 yards or longer. ... The Blue Devils, who have yet to reach 100 rushing yards in a game yet, will be without senior tailback Ronnie Drummer (ribs). Drummer, listed as one of three possible starters, is the team's third-leading receiver. ... Duke's leading receiver is senior Jomar Wright, a former Byrnes High School standout.