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Clemson challenged to get tougher, move forward

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that somebody mailed toilet paper to the Clemson football office.

"Trust me," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said, "that's the least of it."

After all, Koenning found a (non-traditional) use for it. He showed it to his players and told them that's how soft people think the Tigers have been playing.

"We're not what the prognosticators probably originally thought because they really didn't look at our lines on either side," Koenning said. "We're having to work hard to get a little better every day. It's a little bit of a struggle at times. So there's a lot of negative input from outside from our fan base and that was one of the things I could relay to the players, that's what everybody thinks."

And fans haven't been shy about letting the Clemson staff know how they feel. In fact, Koenning said he's got somebody sifting through his emails for him so he doesn't have to "see some of the negative stuff."

Nevermind that Clemson is ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press, or that the Tigers are 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the ACC. They lost to Alabama, 31-10, and the national perception of Clemson's potential took an immediate nosedive. The Tigers have since reeled off three straight wins, but they have been against less heralded opponents. Saturday's noon game against Maryland will be the first real chance Clemson has to prove it is a better, tougher team than the one that didn't show up in the Georgia Dome.

For the most part, those within the program say they're ready to move on and get into the heart of their conference schedule.

"That loss to Alabama, it was tough because expectations were so high around here and Alabama came out and beat us pretty good," said quarterback Cullen Harper. "They were more physical than us. They were tougher than us. ... But really this is the meat of our schedule, when we start playing our ACC games and our goal is to win the ACC championship. This is really where it starts."

Clemson has earned a reputation, though, for its often inexplicable collapses. Have they already gotten that game out of the way?

"It's like having a bad nightmare and every once in a while it comes back," Koenning said of the loss to the Crimson Tide.

"It was just something we had to live for for those six days," receiver Jacoby Ford said of the week before The Citadel game. "Six terrible days."

Alabama exposed Clemson's weaknesses up front, and the coaching staff has since been extremely demonstrative about getting tougher. Safety Michael Hamlin said the players were kept an extra 20 minutes after practice last week to repeatedly lower their shoulders and hit the sleds.

"We really had no choice but to get motivated," Hamlin said. "Everyone responded to it and showed what type of man he really was."

Injuries haven't helped the Tigers up front. Clemson will start two redshirt freshmen on the offensive line in Mason Cloy and Landon Walker. David Smith is out with a sprained ankle and will probably be replaced by senior Bobby Hutchinson, a student assistant coach who played 37 snaps against FSU last year but didn't think he'd play a lot this season and decided to try coaching. Coach Tommy Bowden kept him on scholarship just in case. Now it looks like he'll start.

On the defensive line, true freshman Da'Quan Bowers will start again at defensive end. Brandon Thompson, a true freshman, will see significant time at defensive tackle.

Koenning said his defense still didn't play with the kind of physicality he was looking for last weekend against South Carolina State.

"It's a sad state when they don't have the personality the head coach wants them to have," Koenning said. "We really have to look at our recruits now and go back and make sure we're getting guys that have a tough nature to them. You tend to forget about that sometimes when you're trying to get the biggest and the fastest and the guys that can jump the highest."

Bowden has given the go-ahead for more hitting at practice during the week, and some players have gotten nicked up as a result, but Bowden said he thinks his team is tough enough.

"We did not play very physical in the first game and I think we've gotten better ever since then," Bowden said. "I think this will be -- other than the Alabama game -- this will be the ultimate test because of Maryland's plan of attack and how they attack you. They've got a big, strong, physical offensive line. That's a huge concern because they've got two guys that weigh over 330 pounds. I think this will be the best indication to date how much we've improved in our style of play."

Clemson, ranked No. 9 in the preseason, dropped out of the top 25 rankings and popped back in at No. 23 after beating NC State. But the Tigers are no longer blinded by the national spotlight.

"I think that's probably a good thing," Ford said. "We're just kind of digging ourselves out of the weeds right now, and trying to get back up to the top. We're slowly inching our way up there week by week. If we keep playing hard I think we'll be where we want to be by the end."