CLEMSON -- At 3 p.m. Sunday, the gates opened and an estimated 15,000 Clemson partisans flooded Memorial Stadium, seeking out their favorite Tigers for autographs, handshakes and photos.
Though something of a consolation prize during Fan Appreciation Day, Marcus Gilchrist's signature figures to be a more desirable collectible next summer.
With less than two weeks until the Sept. 5 opener against Middle Tennessee, the Tigers released an updated depth chart Sunday, which may very well double as the opening day lineup. The new two-deep standings revealed Gilchrist, a junior, overtaking Sadat Chambers at free safety.
"He's just a football player," Dabo Swinney said of Gilchrist. "He can go start at corner … he can start at free (safety), he can start at strong (safety). He can really start at any of those positions."
An objective for Swinney and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is to field the best 11 defenders as often as possible. Gilchrist was identified as one of the Tigers' elite 11 defenders early in the spring, but the problem for Gilchrist, a former top 50 prospect, was two seniors -- two Thorpe award candidates -- were already manning his natural cornerback position in Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler.
Chancellor (18th) and Butler (16th) are each ranked as top 20 cornerback prospects for the 2010 NFL draft by NFLdraftscout.com. Gilchrist is ranked as the 15th cornerback for the 2011 draft.
Despite lacking prototype safety size at 5-11, 185 pounds, Gilchrist will start alongside DeAndre McDaniel as Clemson replaces both Chris Clemons and Michael Hamlin. Swinney feels Gilchrist is physical enough, and his corner skills should translate well to center-field type coverage duties.
"He has great instincts," Swinney said. "He's strong, physical, he will hit you. He's been very consistent in camp and we just feel like he is one of our best guys."
While listed as a starter at free safety, Steele said Gilchrist will move to nickel back when extra defensive backs are required on the field. Chambers will play free safety in nickel and dime packages.
"I'll play any position," Gilchrist said. "I feel I can play linebacker. I'm a football player, wherever you put me I'll play."
Since joining the staff, Steele has said his defense will be a hybrid, featuring dozens of different packages, devaluing positional labels.
What the move to safety means is Gilchrist will easily top his playing time from a year ago when he started one of the 13 games he played, totaling 286 snaps.
For a reference point, Hamlin (828), Clemons (696), Chancellor (729) and Butler (590) far exceeded such snap numbers last season.
With Gilchrist established as one of the top defenders, Chambers will have to fight off talented young safeties like Jonathan Meeks and Rashard Hall at safety, and hope the staff does not become so comfortable with Xavier Brewer and Byron Maxwell as backup corners that Gilchrist locks in at free safety even in nickel and dime situations.
The other change on the depth chart was Kevin Alexander and Scotty Cooper listed as co-starters at strong-side linebacker. Cooper had been listed as the sole starter.
Steele has said Alexander, a natural defensive end, would play at linebacker this fall, to get him more reps with Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp entrenched as starters at defensive end.
Cooper, built like a safety, is better in coverage situations and can cover more of the field sideline to sideline. The 265-pound Alexander is a superior pass rusher and a more physical player.
Swinney said it is not so much a competition as it is a platoon. Alexander will also get reps and both end positions.
"You'll see him play both," Swinney said. "He is going to play in regular packages at SAM and play at end. He is a guy we are going to move around a little bit more than the other guys."
Swinney's extreme makeover at Clemson has even trickled down to the Tigers' game day attire. The paw print on the Clemson helmets will be larger this season, and the Tigers' pants will feature twin orange stripes, a retro look dating back to the Danny Ford era. Swinney planned to change the look of the jersey, too, but the design had already been approved for production.
Reach Travis Sawchik at firstname.lastname@example.org
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