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January 14, 2009

Clemson motivated more than ever

Clemson coach Jack Leggett hopes to never again experience the feeling he had throughout last season.

The Tigers entered the 2008 campaign with high hopes, but were unable to establish consistency. They also failed to make an NCAA regional for the first time since 1986, a streak that lasted 21 seasons.

Clemson obviously has a wealth of tradition, which is why its players and coaches enter the '09 campaign with a chip on their shoulder.

After dealing with inexperience issues at the plate last season, the Tigers have a more positive outlook this season. They return their top five hitters and six of their top seven hitters, with Doug Hogan as the only major offensive departure.

While the offense is in much better shape, the pitching staff is littered with talented and experienced pitchers.

Veterans Trey Delk and Ryan Hinson likely will spearhead the weekend rotation, while senior closer Matt Vaughn gives the Tigers a seasoned arm in the latter innings. The Tigers also are high on several younger pitchers and newcomers.

The Tigers aren't flawless entering the '09 campaign, but have the talent, makeup and attitude to go the distance.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett said the team's strengths include an exciting freshman class from a leadership and work ethic standpoint and a team that is motivated, deep and tough after what transpired last season. In terms of weaknesses, Leggett said the starting pitching must improve. He believes they'll be fine this season, but said they weren't impressive in '08.

The one-year hiatus from the NCAA postseason should end.


CLEMSON AT-A-GLANCE
The Tigers are ecstatic to have a healthy Addison Johnson back in the lineup this season.
LAST SEASON
Record: 31-27, 11-18 in ACC
In a nutshell: The Tigers were in unfamiliar territory last season. Clemson entered the season with high hopes, but was unable to overcome the significant departures after the '07 season. The Tigers were inexperienced and it frequently showed, leading to Clemson's first absence from an NCAA regional since 1986. It was a 21-year postseason streak for the Tigers. The Tigers finished fourth in the ACC Atlantic Division and also had a less than stellar overall record of 31-27. Though coach Jack Leggett still is disappointed with how last season ended, he believes their tough schedule both last season and this season will help them down the road.
PROBABLE STARTERS

Ryan Hinson
C Phil Pohl (Fr.), John Nester (So.)
1B Ben Paulsen (Jr.)
2B Mike Freeman (Jr.)
SS Stan Widmann (Grad.), Brad Miller (Fr.)
3B Jason Stolz (Fr.), Brad Miller (Fr.)
OF Addison Johnson (So.)
OF Jeff Schaus (So.),
OF Kyle Parker (So.)
DH Will Boyd (Jr.)
SP Trey Delk (Sr.)
SP Graham Stoneburner (So.)
SP Ryan Hinson (Sr.)
CP Matt Vaughn (Sr.)
Head coach: Jack Leggett
2009 OUTLOOK
Barring a surprise, the Tigers should prove last season was an aberration. Though the Tigers were young and inexperienced last season, it no longer should be the case this spring. The Tigers welcome back their top five hitters and also are ecstatic about the return of sophomore outfielder Addison Johnson, who missed last season with an injury. With a balanced offense, the focus turns to the Clemson pitching staff, which also in good shape. The Tigers welcome back veteran starters Trey Delk and Ryan Hinson and senior closer Matt Vaughn. They also have high hopes for sophomore Graham Stoneburner and several more pitchers. I really like this Clemson team a lot. It has a balanced offense capable of compiling very good numbers, while the pitching staff is loaded with talented arms. Oh yeah, there's also that motivation factor after last season. CU shouldn't have trouble reaching an NCAA regional.
Offense

The Tigers finished last season with a less than impressive .285 batting average and realize they must improve to get back to an NCAA regional.

The good news is CU welcomes back its top five hitters from last year, including second baseman Mike Freeman, outfielder Jeff Schaus, first baseman Ben Paulsen, outfielder Kyle Parker and designated hitter Will Boyd.

Freeman led the team last season with a .332 batting average. Schaus, meanwhile, batted .315 with three homers and 31 RBIs.

Paulsen batted .310 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs. He also recorded 18 doubles, one triple and 129 bases. Additionally, he had a .571 slugging percentage and an on-bas percentage of .393.

Parker had a monster freshman campaign. He batted .303 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs. He also recorded 12 doubles and 118 total bases. Additionally, he had a .559 slugging percentage and an on-base percentage of .400.

Also keep an eye on junior Will Boyd, who hit .300 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs last season. He also recorded 12 doubles, one triple and 117 total bases. He also slugged .502 and had an on-base percentage of .376.

Stan Widmann, Chris Epps and John Nester are other potential contributors to watch. Widmann hit .238 in 206 at bats last season, Epps hit .218 in 101 at bats and Nester, who could win the starting job at catcher, batted .256 with three homers and five RBIs.

The bottom of Clemson's lineup probably won't be incredibly strong, but the top half will to be on par with some of the ACC's best.


Starting pitching

Clemson's starting rotation certainly doesn't lack experience.

Assuming he's 100 percent healthy throughout the season, the Tigers expect a productive campaign from senior left-handed pitcher Ryan Hinson.

Hinson made 10 starts last season and had a 4.74 ERA in 68 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 62 and walked 22, while opponents hit him at a .301 clip.

Senior right-hander Trey Delk might've been the best pitcher coming out of fall workouts. Delk made five starts and had 14 appearances last season. He also had a 4.01 ERA in 42 2/3 innings of work. Additionally, Delk struck out 34 and walked 15, while opponents him at a .271 clip.

Sophomore right-hander Graham Stoneburner should round out the weekend rotation. Stoneburner made 14 starts last season and had a 5.55 ERA in 71 1/3 innings. He also struck out 52 and walked 21, while opponents hit .281 off him.

Also keep an eye on junior right-handed pitcher Justin Sarratt, who's coming off a productive summer. Last season for the Tigers, he made 27 appearances and had a 4.34 ERA in 45 2/3 innings. He also recorded 26 strikeouts and six walks.

Clemson's weekend rotation should be good this spring.


Bullpen

The bullpen is one of Clemson's strongest units.

Senior reliever Matt Vaughn is expected to spearhead the bullpen. Vaughn appeared in 30 games last season and had a 3.15 ERA in 40 innings of work. He also struck out 43 and walked 12, while opponents hit him at a .256 clip. Vaughn currently only is 85 percent, but Leggett said he'll be fine by Opening Day.

Other pitchers to watch include freshman right-hander Kevin Brady, freshman left-hander Chris Dwyer and freshman right-hander Scott Weismann.

The Tigers also may consistently rely on sophomore left-hander Casey Harman and junior college transfer Tomas Cruz.

Clemson's bullpen is a little inexperienced, but certainly talented.


Shoes to Fill

It's good news there's not much to write in this category.

The Tigers essentially must only replace weekend starter D.J. Mitchell and catcher Doug Hogan.

Mitchell was the most consistent starter last season. He made 14 starts and 20 appearances and had a 3.47 ERA in 98 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 106 and walked 40, while opponents hit him at a .258 clip. Mitchell signed with the Yankees last summer after getting drafted in Round 10.

Hogan was a big-time power hitter for the Tigers. He batted .271 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs. He also recorded 17 doubles, three triples and 118 total bases. Additionally, he had a .515 slugging percentage and a .344 on-base percentage.

Replacing Mitchell certainly will be difficult, but the Tigers should be fine without Hogan in the offensive lineup.


Must Step Up

The Tigers have experience on the mound and at the plate, but several players still must step up for the program to return to an NCAA regional.

Players that must step up include outfielder Addison Johnson and weekend starters Trey Delk and Ryan Hinson.

Johnson missed last season with an injury and Leggett admits the Tigers just weren't the same without him in the field. Therefore, it's imperative to their success for the sophomore to have a productive campaign.

Delk and Hinson must lead by example.

Delk had a solid 4.01 ERA in '08 while Hinson had a 4.74 ERA. Both pitchers are expected to compile better numbers this season. Delk had a strong fall and really impressed pitching coach Kyle Bunn, while Hinson still is working on getting all his endurance back.


Impact Newcomer

Clemson has several newcomers to watch this season.

Freshman catcher Phil Pohl caught the coaching staff's attention during fall workouts. Pohl currently is in a battle with John Nester for the starting job at catcher. Leggett described him as a tough kid and a phenomenal leader.

Freshmen infielders Jason Stolz and Brad Miller also are worth watching. Leggett said Stolz is very versatile and will help the program in a variety of ways, while Miller also is versatile and could play shortstop or third base. Leggett said Miller will be a stud at some point in his college career.

On the mound, keep an eye on newcomers Kevin Brady, Chris Dwyer, Scott Weismann and Tomas Cruz.

Brady has a very strong arm and will be an immediate contributor, while Dwyer also has a power arm and should immediately help the Tigers. The Tigers feel the same about Weismann and Cruz.

Clemson's offense won't be dependent on newcomers this season, but the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, is another story.

Leggett, though, is optimistic about his newcomers.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.