CLEMSON, S.C. -- To Clemson cornerback Brian Mance, this season is already off to a great start.
"Things are more tight this year," said Mance, a senior who hosted several cookouts for Tiger teammates this summer. "Everybody worked together, everybody ran together, we started to be around the guys more and got a little more respect for each other."
Mance, who met fans and signed autographs at the team's yearly fan day Sunday, doesn't expect the same drop-off that saw Clemson go from 9-3 and close to Atlantic Coast Conference title contention in 2000 to needing a win over lowly Duke last fall just to clinch a bowl berth.
Things were all right with the Tigers in 2001, but ...
Mance winces when remembering parts of last year. Some might say the downward spiral began on his watch.
Mance was beaten by receiver Billy McMullen with a second left for the winning touchdown in the Cavaliers' 26-24 victory at Death Valley last September. Life didn't get much better after big home losses to North Carolina (38-3) and Florida State (41-27) were part of a 3-5 stretch.
Predictably, defensive tackle Nick Eason said, some players began to feel sorry for themselves, make excuses and blame others.
"It was an easy thing to do," said Eason, who pointed the finger at himself Sunday. He had come from a hard off-season of rehabilitation after Achilles' tendon surgery. When he sprained his ankle early on, Eason said he hung his head and set a bad example for the sideline full of younger players looking for leadership.
"I think I did a bad job handling that situation," Eason said. "I was really frustrated, kind of like on my own, just worried about myself. ... Guys were watching everything I do."
So this year, Eason, Mance, linebacker-safety Altroy Bodrick and other upper classmen made sure they set the right examples.
They held a meeting before spring drills began and demanded everyone be accountable to the others. Hurt feelings and sulking have no place on winning teams, Eason said.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden downplayed any splits last year. He said such dissension is typical when teams struggle and face adversity. "You can find that in a locker room at halftime if you're trailing 28-0," he said.
Quarterback Willie Simmons, a junior taking over for NCAA record-setter Woody Dantzler, said players used to come in for off-season workouts at set times and if they ran into each other, so be it. This time, he said they all met to pump each other up and discuss goals and dreams.
"It made us that much closer," Simmons said.
Mance went even farther, grilling hamburgers for teammates. "Now, it's harder for us to let down those guys on the other side of the ball," Mance said.
Things looked nice and friendly Sunday as the players climbed the high stands used for its annual team photo. The jokes were fierce and fast while photographers got everyone in place on a hot, sunny afternoon. "Hurry up, I got water coming off of me," Eason said, as teammates chuckled.
Can this closeness make a difference where it counts - on the field?
Mance thinks so. After the Virginia loss, Mance talked of a push-off by McMullen. But he was told by Bowden later officials usually let players decide the game at the end. Given a similar situation this year, "I'm not going to let my team down again."
See what a little unity can do.