Until he led unranked Clemson to a 26?10 upset of No. 3 Florida State last November, Charlie Whitehurst was a promising young quarterback on an average ACC team. But that big win turned out to be the first in a run of four straight by the Tigers to close the season, including a 27?14 defeat of sixth-ranked Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. Clemson?s average margin of victory in that run: 27 points. Now Whitehurst, a 6'4", 215pound junior who threw for 3,561 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2003, is regarded as the star of a juggernaut. ?Charlie gained more confidence in himself,? offensive coordinator Mike O?Cain says of his passer?s breakout season. ?Now he?s generating that confidence in others. Guys gravitate to him.?
Not bad for a player whose biggest claim to fame coming out of high school was being the son of former Green Bay Packers quarterback David Whitehurst. Charlie was No. 2 on the depth chart until the Tigers? ninth game of 2002, when he threw for 420 yards and four touchdowns in a 34?31 win over Duke. A classic drop-back passer at a school that?s had few of them, he set 22 school records by the end of that season and drew comparisons to his idol, Brett Favre. ?Charlie plays within himself and has tremendous poise,? says O?Cain. ?He?s never had just a terrible, terrible game.?
Inexperienced at tackle and wide receiver, the Tigers will need some of Whitehurst?s confidence to rub off on the untested players early on. Sophomores Roman Fry and Marion Dukes step into the holes on the offensive line, with left tackle Fry under extra pressure to protect the quarterback?s blind side. Clemson also must replace three wideouts who combined for 155 catches and 2,209 yards last year. Senior Airese Currie and junior Curtis Baham are dependable targets, but sophomore Chansi Stuckey is an intriguing option. The No. 2 quarterback last year, Stuckey has displayed the kind of elusiveness that could make him a game-breaker. ?He?s as electric as anybody I?ve seen after making the catch,? says Whitehurst. ?The talent level of this team is better than last year?s.?
If that?s the case, and Clemson can win on the road against Florida State or Miami, or both, don?t be surprised if Whitehurst makes a run at the Heisman. After all, he threw for more yards last year than any other sophomore in the country, including USC?s Matt Leinart. ?It?s an honor to be mentioned with him,? says Whitehurst, ?but I haven?t done what he?s done yet. Let?s win the ACC first. That?s my goal.? --M.B.