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At 29, Clemson's Napier tasked with leading Tigers' offense

4/13/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier folded his arms, leaned back in his chair in the offensive meeting room and stared at a play frozen on the projector screen.

"Talk me through this, Kyle Parker," he said to one of his potential starting quarterbacks before a recent spring practice. "Two safeties, what are you thinking? ... We need to help these young buck receivers. Coach 'em up. Grab the guy, explain the concept to him. We gotta help those guys come along."

"Yessir," Parker said.

Their respect for Napier is evident, even though at 29 years old, he looks more like their older brother than a coordinator at a big-time BCS school.

"He's a very knowledgeable guy," Parker said. "You can tell he knows what he's talking about. He's a great guy to learn from. The plays are on the board, we're getting printouts every day -- he's always one step ahead and is always teaching us."

The thing is, Napier is learning, too.

Clemson, ranked No. 9 in the 2008 preseason, finished ranked 99th in the country in rushing offense and 88th in total offense despite having a 2,000-yard rusher, a 3,000-yard rusher, a 2,000-yard receiver and a 3,000-yard passer. While there were numerous problems and injuries up front on the patchwork offensive line, it was one of the most underutilized groups of offensive skill players in the country.

And Napier, who had never called plays at the BCS level until midway through last season when former offensive coordinator Rob Spence was fired, has been tasked with changing that.

"Yeah, I could've gone and brought some veteran guy in here, but I didn't want to have to learn his offense, and I didn't want to have to teach him what I want to do," said coach Dabo Swinney. "I have a great, young coach here. You just kind of know when things are right.

"I think he's a guy that will prove to be a great offensive coordinator, just like I hope to prove to be a great head coach. There's a lot of people out there saying to Terry Don, 'Gosh, this guy's not even 40. Why would you hire him to be the head coach at Clemson? He hasn't even been a head coach.' It's the same thing. I look at Billy in the same regard hopefully Terry Don looks at me, and that is, I believe in him."

Napier will have a few veterans in C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford and the offensive line should be notably better, but the Tigers will have a new starting quarterback. Parker, Willy Korn and Michael Wade are in a competition set to continue through August, but Parker had the best spring and put on a show in Saturday's Orange & White exhibition.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the Tigers' offense heading into summer camp, and Napier is one of them. Those within the program, though, don't doubt his ability. Instead, they look to him for answers.

"Check that before I go any further," first-year assistant Danny Pearman said at a recent staff meeting, sliding his scripted plays in front of Napier.

"You want to run that one the other way," Napier said. "Get some vanilla looks."

"There was a respect there he had to earn, which I think he has," said offensive line coach Brad Scott, a former head coach. "The fact that he's so organized and he has a plan, you're -- as Dabo likes to say, 'all in' and want to help him and support him."

With the exception of Scott's son, Jeff, Napier is the youngest member of the staff.

"I have no trouble with it," Napier said of the age difference. "When it comes time to talk ball and get on the board, I hope they feel I look to those guys for their opinions and we make a lot of decisions as a group."

Napier's ascension to coordinator came quicker than even he expected, but he said it's something he's been preparing for since he played in college. (As a student and quarterback at Furman, Napier wrote a term paper on how he would run his own football program.)

Napier is a coach's son, and carried a lot of responsibility as the starting quarterback in Bobby Johnson's offense at Furman. He had never been a recruiting coordinator until his second year at Clemson, and he lured the No. 2 class in the country to Clemson in 2008. He had never been a tight ends coach until 2006.

"I'm just going to do as good as I can do," he said. "There's a reason I got the job. I'm looking forward to it. I've confidence in our players and our staff, and in the way I'm working. I'm going to work around the clock to get it done. ... I think we can move the ball and score points. I think I know how to win. I think I know what it takes to win. Obviously I've got a lot to learn -- make no bones about it. I want to make sure everybody knows that. I'm going to try to be as humble as I can be. But at the same time, I'm not going to be meek. That's not what's gotten me here."

This year, Napier and Swinney are intent on getting the ball to their playmakers, having the quarterback run more, becoming much more of a vertical football team, and attacking more downfield. This fall, Napier will be calling the plays from the box and Swinney will obviously have veto power from the sideline.

Clemson's offense did show some improvement in the second half of the season under Swinney and Napier, but the offense was held under 100 yards rushing four times in the final six games -- including a whopping four yards on 26 attempts in a 26-21 loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.

Spiller rushed for only 17 yards in that game and only 18 in a 13-3 win over Virginia, but saw enough signs that helped convince him to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft.

"I knew I was coming back in a great situation," Spiller said. "I know this -- I know coach Napier is going to do whatever he can to get me the ball and the other guys that make plays. That's what it's really all about -- just putting the ball in guys hands that are going to make plays for us."

Those within the program rave about Napier's work ethic, his attention to detail and preparedness. He and Ali Napier were married last July, and on the afternoon of their rehearsal dinner, Napier was still in the office working until around 5 p.m.

"Billy's doing his part and more," Scott said. "Obviously the proof is in the pudding as they say. We're going to have to deliver. I say 'we' collectively as a staff. It's not just all coach Napier's problem."