The third and final installment in my summer flashback series looking at my choices as the cream of the crop for the 80s, 90s, and 2000s is here. Today we look at the 1999-2008 stretch where Tommy Bowden helmed the Tiger program. Almost every reader of this site will have a pretty vivid recollection of this period of time when hopes rose but disappointment ultimately happened to prevent the Tigers from truly cracking the top 10 and making a push for championships.
Despite that, Bowden’s time helped fix problems that had been looming since Ford was ousted in early 1990. The offense was finally pushed into the modern era, facility upgrades began to happen, and the Tigers finally found a way to beat Florida State and notch a few meaningful out of conference wins. Most importantly, Bowden hired Dabo Swinney out of the private sector, paving the way for his ultimate rise to head coach and ushering in the golden era of Clemson football we all now enjoy.
I found this to be the most difficult of the eras to pick first-teamers. In several cases, some major studs had to be passed over. In other cases, finding a legitimate first team choice was tough from an underwhelming group of choices. Either way, this is what I ultimately decided upon and now submit it for your viewing and discussion.
OFFENSE: Bowden era for me means 11 personnel, which is 1 back, 1 TE spread that Rich Rodriquez primarily employed as well as Brad Scott. I refuse to acknowledge the Rob Spence years...
RT: Landon Walker (2007-2011): Overlapped Bowden and Swinney but was a significant contributor from the beginning, ultimately starting 49 games and making All-ACC.
RG: Roman Fry (2003-2006): All-ACC, midseason SI All-American in 2006 before tearing his ACL in the GT game. Was perhaps the most dominant inside run blocker of the Bowden era. Those trap runs to Jasmin in the 2003 Peach Bowl vs. Tennessee usually featured Fry. He helped destroy a vaunted NCSU front in a big road win against the Pack in 2005. I point to his injury as a major factor in the demise of the promising 2006 season.
C: Kyle Young (1998-2001) 2 time All-American, multiple All-ACC awards, was the centerpiece of the OL transformation from 1998’s disaster to the then-record setting 2000-2001 offenses. Current Clemson administrator after a stellar academic career as well as athletic.
LG: Nathan Bennett (2003-2006) 4 year starter, major part of the resurrection of the Clemson running game, paving the way for Reggie Merriweather, James Davis, and C.J. Spiller.
LT: Barry Richardson (2004-2007) 4 year starter, first legitimate NFL tackle prospect in modern Clemson history. 6th Round Draft pick with a 6 year NFL career.
RB: C.J. Spiller (2006-2009) Future Ring of Honor inductee (better be!), perhaps the most explosive player in Clemson history and arguably the greatest kick returner in collegiate history. All-ACC, POY in 2009, All American, etc. A Clemson Mount Rushmore player as far as I’m concerned. James Davis was great but Spiller gets the nod here.
QB: Charlie Whitehurst (2002-2005) Four year starter and finally provided the Tigers with the type of quarterback needed to beat Florida State. 4-0 against USCjr with wins over top 10 ranked FSU, Tennessee, and Miami during his career. Woody Dantzler was a very close second but Whitehurst gets the nod from me.
TE: Ben Hall (2001-2004) Easily the most explosive tight end Clemson had seen in a very long time. He never was the greatest blocker but it was fairly slim pickings at this spot during this era as future studs Michael Palmer and Dwayne Allen emerged as Swinney took over.
WR: Aaron Kelly (2004-2008) 3 year starter, broke the career receiving record during his time. Underrated performer who sadly is most remembered for the drop against Boston College in 2007. However, I choose to remember his huge performance to help beat USCjr in Columbia that same year.
WR: Derrick Hamilton (2001-2003). 3 year starter, all ACC, and one of the most dynamic players in Clemson history as a receiver, runner, and kick/punt returner. Left early for the draft after huge performances down the stretch of 2003 in wins over FSU, Duke, USCjr, and Tennessee. Roscoe Crosby had the hype but Hamilton ultimately had the major career from the early 2000s.
WR: Rod Gardner (1998-2000). A Coach West signee but he was probably the charter member of #WRU as Rich Rod made full use of the physical boundary position that would be the home of future studs like Sammy Watkins, Deandre Hopkins, Mike Williams, and Tee Higgins. All-ACC, All-American, 1st round draft pick. Absolutely destroyed North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2000 to help Willie Simmons save the day. And, of course, delivered “The Catch II.”
PK: Mark Bucholtz (2007-2008). Admittedly I struggled to find a guy to pick for this spot. Kicking was a major issue throughout Bowden’s career. Bucholtz was a great soccer player and did deliver a game winning kick to beat USCjr in 2007, so that got him the nod here.
Notes: WR was especially difficult as guys like Jacoby Ford and Chansi Stuckey warranted serious consideration. Ford’s best year was with Swinney in 09. Kelly was more productive than Stuckey as a college player, though Stuckey got some NFL run.
DEFENSE: Bowden era means 4-3 front which was primarily employed by Herring, Lovett, and Koenning.
DE: Gaines Adams (2003-2006). All-ACC, All American, ACC Defensive POY. Adams redefined the position for Clemson and finished as the #5 overall pick of the NFL draft. Died way too soon.
DT: Nick Eason (1999-2002). 3 year starter, All-ACC, 5th round draft pick, current DL coach at Auburn. Fantastic student as well as athlete.
DT: Jarvis Jenkins (2007-2011) 3 year starter (though played more for Swinney than Bowden), All-ACC, 2nd round draft pick.
DE: Ricky Sapp (2006-2009). Gets the nod over Phillip Merling and Daquan Bowers (due to Bowers doing almost all his damage under Swinney). Solid career with 17.5 career sacks, though he battled injuries and never quite lived up to the 5 star hype he came in with.
LB: Keith Adams (1998-2000). 2 time All-American and put up one of the most impressive seasons in football history in 1999 when he registered 186 tackles and 35 TFL! The Termite was definitely an all time great of any era.
LB: Leroy Hill (2001-2004). 2 year starter, 2 time All-ACC, All-American, ACC Defensive POY in 2004. 3rd round draft pick and multi-year starter in the NFL. Probably the last truly great Clemson LB until the Swinney/Venables era.
LB: Anthony Waters (2002-2006). 2 year starter, All-ACC, had what promised to be a huge senior year derailed with an ACL tear in the second half of a blowout win against Florida Atlantic (don’t get me started about how mad I was he was still out there then). Waters makes my team from his 2005 season alone, which put him ahead of others who completed careers during this era.
CB: Justin Miller (2002-2004). 3 year starter, one of the most dominant freshmen seasons I’ve ever seen from a corner. Dynamic kick returner and huge hitter. 2nd round draft pick and Pro Bowler in 2006.
FS: Michael Hamlin (2004-2008). 4 year starter! All-ACC, 14 career interceptions. 5th round draft pick.
SS: Jamaal Fudge (2001-2005). 3 year starter, pound for pound one of the toughest players in Clemson history. After being embarrassed by Greg Jones of FSU in 2002, Fudge helped set the tone in the 2003 upset win, planting the much bigger Jones in the hole on one occasion. Saved a TD with a huge hit on Heath Miller in the win over UVA in 2003 on his way to 20 tackles that day.
CB: Tye Hill (2001-2005). 3 year starter after moving from running back in 2003, All-ACC, All-American in 2005, 1st round draft pick. Paired with Miller to give Clemson the type of corners needed to beat Florida State (which Hill’s teams did in 2003 and 2005).
P: Ummm, Cole Chason? (2003-2006). 4 year starter. Didn’t drop a snap in Athens. That’s about all I can say in what was usually major sore spot on the roster in those days.
Notes: The secondary featured many, many tough decisions as guys like Chris Clemons, Crezdon Butler, Chris Chancellor, and Travis Pugh all warranted consideration. Marcus Gilchrist was more of a Swinney player in my view. Punter and Kicker probably could have been left off this team altogether. Definitely no Iwebuikwe, Obed Ariri, Nelson Welch type guys to consider like in the previous two eras.
The skill on the outside got considerably better under Bowden, but the era lacked many true studs inside on defense, especially in the 1999-2005 stretch. Guys like Donnell Washington were pretty good but never materialized fully (and Washington left early for the NFL on bad advice). Depth was an issue and overachievers like Rashaad Jackson had to be counted on more often than not. The 2006 OL was pretty darn good, especially when Roman Fry was healthy. Too bad that team didn’t have Whitehurst or Dantzler as QB. Obviously the issues up front were exposed in a major way by Alabama in 2008, and previously by Boston College, which began the death knell of the Bowden era.