If you do say Michael Dean Perry—that's the name of Clemson's starting right defensive tackle—you had better also say the names of Stephens, tackle Raymond Chavous, noseguard Mark Drag, tackle Otis Moore and tackle Richard McCullough. The Tigers always shuttle players along their three-man defensive front as if they were in a tag-team match, and they haven't had such a strong and lively group since 1981, when William Perry, Michael Dean's celebrated older brother, and a few other slabs of beef named Jeff Bryant (now with the Seahawks), Andy Headen (Giants), and William Devane were playing demolition derby with the rest of the college football world.
"Michael Dean's as good as any we've had play, even though he sometimes likes to play somebody else's position," says Ford. In the Tigers' second game of the season, a 22-10 win over Virginia Tech, Perry made an interception on the first play of the game. "He's supposed to be rushing," says defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Tom Harper, "but I guess I've learned more from Dean than Dean's learned from me. But Michael Dean isn't the only guy we've got. Tony Stephens can vertical jump 31 inches, bench press 450 pounds, go the 40 in 5.0. And he weighs 300 pounds. Rich McCullough is 6'5", 260, 4.8, and can reach over across this room. I can't take credit for that." One former Clemson recruiter describes Stephens as "the closest you can get to the Fridge and Devane."
"I guess there's no comparison between us and those guys," says Stephens. "Not yet, anyway. Look what they accomplished." Michael Dean, who weighs 280, isn't so sure. "Tony just took the ball from Jackson on the one," he said after the victory. "On the next play, we get the safety anyway. See, we knew if we wanted to win the football game, we'd better do something right then. There's no difference between us and the guys playing at Nebraska and Oklahoma. And as far as defensive line goes, we've got the best one overall. But, you know, Coach Ford hasn't said one word about the national championship."
That's because Ford knows that it has hardly gotten to that, even with those heavy hitters up front. "I don't know if I want to play either one of 'em," Ford had said of likely Orange Bowl foes Nebraska or Oklahoma. Of course, before the game, the ever-cautious Ford had said, "Yeah, home games are nice if you win 'em all. I don't know about our D, but I believe I'll know by suppertime."
By suppertime he was saying, "Yes, I believe we did wear 'em down." But he was quick to add, "We did some things right, but a lot wrong. It was not an error-free game, but then they never are."
Most of what Clemson did wrong was on offense. Williams completed but six of 16 passes for 76 yards and had an especially frustrating moment when the Tigers were at the Georgia 13 in the third quarter and Gary Cooper, a sophomore wide receiver who caught four of the six successful passes, was open in the end zone. So what did Williams do but, slip to one knee, losing six yards. Ford stood there with his hands on his hips, steaming. "Sometimes the receivers were breaking one way, and I was throwing another," said Williams. Just as often, however, the receivers were looking for stepladders so they could pull down his high throws.
If Clemson hopes to really impress the pollsters and bowl scouts, Williams has to get his passes—and his offense—under control. Even a Mack truck needs a skilled hand at the wheel.