Clemson University

Motivated Merling turning the corner

CLEMSON -- Uncharacteristic of his flip-switch temperament, Clemson defense end Phillip Merling stood humbly and absorbed the berating from his coach.

Merling had been flagged for an offside penalty in the Nov. 3 rout of Duke, but as he reached the sideline after being replaced, Tommy Bowden let him have it.

The can of worms had opened, and the junior from St. Matthews was in deep compost.

What commenced was the turning point in Merling's season.

"You always have to present him with challenges," said Chris Rumph, Merling's position coach and uncle. "If you don't, he can go to sleep on you."

Bowden left his spot on the sideline a few moments later and again sought out Merling (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) for a chewing.

Little did Merling realize the motivational message was in its infancy.

Hobbled by a sprained ankle suffered the previous week, Merling had bypassed some of his rehabilitative responsibilities. And when Merling finished with one tackle in 27 snaps, Bowden was stocked with ammunition.

At Monday night's practice, Bowden called Merling out before, during and after, with Merling having to conduct extra conditioning drills for good measure.

Bowden then told reporters "It was like playing with 10 players," repeating the necessity of generating more pass rush in the coming weeks.

"I can't have the head coach thinking about me like that," Merling said. "I have to want him see me playing to my full potential."

Two games later, Merling has displayed the desire, and Bowden has enjoyed the results.

He registered two sacks apiece against Wake Forest and Boston College while notching eight and nine tackles, respectively. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning labeled Merling "a dynamic player" in numerous games this year, but he was "a force to be reckoned with" against Boston College, which featured mammoth left tackle Gosder Cherilus.

"He's trying very hard to be a leader and the leader for this football team, and he needs to be given a lot of credit for that," Koenning said.

Bowden said Merling's late-season explosion is comparable to the progression displayed by last year's star defensive end, Gaines Adams.

Rumph said it took Merling gaining confidence in various pass-rushing techniques to suddenly make him a complete player.

Merling lowered his playing weight 10 pounds to 270 this season and trimmed his body fat from 19 to 13.5 percent to improve his agility.

But like Adams, he fell in love with trying to beat tackles off the edge, thereby wasting his primary tool -- power.

Merling said he also spent a portion of the season dealing with unspecified family issues that have since smoothed out. His youth was hardly structured; he bounced between relatives' homes during his youth, had little contact with his father and even lived with Rumph for several years.

"I just had a lot of things on my plate as a man," Merling said. "It all seems it's been going together, learning how to be a man and handle things on the field as well as with my family off the field."

Handling life will soon include a decision on whether to return for his senior season.

A three-time ACC defensive lineman of the week, Merling has climbed onto several lists of top draft-eligible prospects, and he will seek a draft projection from the NFL's underclassmen advisory committee.

But both Merling and Rumph maintain that Merling plans to come back.

When Merling gathered the Tigers in the locker room immediately after the Boston College loss, he spoke not only of finishing the job this year, but of Clemson's prospects beyond -- a future he wants to be a part of next year.

"I just felt like the team needed somebody to talk to them right at that time," Merling said. "We didn't need to go home all sad. It was a hard loss, but we still have a lot of football to play, and this can be a good season for us."