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2011 Position Analysis: Offensive Line with Robbie Caldwell

Robbie Caldwell is a Furman graduate who went to work there for about a decade after graduation as the OL coach under then-HC Dick Sheridan. Dick Sheridan, the only guy that could give Danny fits consistently with inferior talent, took Caldwell with him to NC State where he continued as OL coach during the tenure of Mike O'Cain. He'd stay there until 2000, when he went to work for UNC for 2 years.

In 2002, Bobby Johnson got the head job at Vandy after guiding Furman to the 1-AA National Championship game and he picked his friend Caldwell to come work for him. Vandy is where Caldwell really caught my attention as a quality line coach. Vandy never pulled in great talent up front, and with his coaching he developed several guys who weren't well-thought-of in recruiting into a quality group of linemen nearly every year.

When Johnson abruptly resigned in 2010, Caldwell got the chance at the head job, and it did not work out well for him, finishing 2-10. At the end of the season he resigned and I think he just realized that being the Head man wasn't right for him.

When we found out that Scott planned to retire we also heard that Dabo had started the wheels in motion to hire Caldwell after signing day. While The Chad may have preferred to have a OL coach more steeped in the HUNH spread, like current Vandy OL coach Herb Hand (who Caldwell hired there and Franklin retained), we think Caldwell is the best chance at getting the lazyness out of our offensive line.

Of course if Batson remains then it may not matter who the OL coach is.

How we evaluate Coach Caldwell

  • Recruiting
  • Passing sacks allowed and pass blocking
  • Rushing statistics and overall tenacity in run blocking

Coach Caldwell is a respected OL coach, but despite his affable manner he's never been thought of as a dynamic recruiter. We knew all of that before he came in, and weren't expecting him to suddenly become one, despite spending a couple stops of his career at places where it was pretty damn hard to recruit star athletes. In 2011, he joined the staff just after Scott announced his formal retirement and was not responsible for the OL commitments we did get this cycle. In fact, he wasn't even here when they were offered.

Caldwell did not bring in a single recruit for the 2011 cycle and actually hasn't landed one since the 2009 cycle at Vanderbilt. In this cycle he did not have many top targets in his home region around Pageland in the Midlands of SC. We'll expect him to spot recruit TN with Brooks in the future, as well as GA in the future.

For now though we would have to give Caldwell a negative grade in recruiting. Some allege that he has difficulty using the social media or internet well (facebook, skype, etc.) to recruit, which doesn't surprise me given his age and countryfied ways. I'm sure many of our readers can't figure out an iphone or have parents/grandparents that think facebook or twitter are stupid things to use.

Our biggest complaint, even with the yearly ups & downs in recruiting, is Clemson's OL offer board. We never take enough linemen each year. If Brad or Robbie knows his talent pool is small, why doesn't he fight for an offer board twice the size? Why wouldn't he fight to go get the offensive linemen that we need to become a consistently good offensive team? Why do we always have only 5 to 7 (max) guys that can actually play up front for the last 5 years?

Then the Linemen we do pull in are rarely top-flight linemen. We don't put them in the NFL with regularity, despite what Dabo tried to BS us with last month when he praised Hairston and Richardson in the NFL. Opponents use that against us every cycle, UGA in particular hammers us with it. Clemson badly needs to bring in the talent at OL that we can bring in at the skill positions, and I fear we will never be dominant up front again until the Head Coach realizes this and places the emphasis at OL in recruiting. After we get them, we need to put them in the League.


Participation Chart 2011
Player Pos Snaps
David Beasley OG 30
Mason Cloy OG 177
Kalon Davis OG 49
Dalton Freeman C 1044
Antoine McClain OG 921
Phillip Price OT 802
Matt Sanders G/C 25
David Smith OG 430
Giffford Timothy OT 45
Landon Walker OT 1033
Reid Webster G/T 33
Brandon Thomas OG 777

Offensive linemen are the one position that are the toughest for a coach to evaluate in HS. Sometimes a guy could just be big in HS and not really be all that great. Sometimes his quickness is deceptive against weak defensive competition. Sometimes he could have everything physically and just be a wimp, like Cory Lambert.

I'm sure Cory Lambert would've been a flat miss anywhere he signed, and he could've signed anywhere. He just lacks the fire of a Nathan Bennett, which frankly I think all our linemen are missing. Perhaps under another OL coach, or 4 years of Pearman, he'd have become meaner and a great one, but thats pure speculation. All I know is that Lambert never did anything here, despite having all the physical gifts necessary for a Tackle.

Also notice the numbers that have been brought in on the below depth chart. We should not be in the position of having to play freshmen at OT. Linemen, being so hard to evaluate and so oft injured, should be brought in more. Even if you have to take a few extra non blue-chippers, then a minimum of 4 should be brought every season. A smaller recruiting offer board has contributed to this.

I think its fair now to say that Brandon Thomas was a hit in evaluation, at least as a Guard. At Tackle he looked pretty lost, and the lack of unity between himself and whomever lined up at Guard inside him was evident. Still, I would expect him to get first shot at LT this spring, and only if Battle really shows out should Thomas stay at LG. The rest of this group, aside from Freeman, leaves us scratching our heads:

Prospective Clemson Offensive Line Depth Spring 2012
LT LG Center RG RT
Isaiah Battle (Fr) Brandon Thomas (So) Dalton Freeman (Sr) Kalon Davis (So) Joe Gore (RS Fr)
Shaq Anthony (RS Fr) David Beasley (So) Ryan Norton (RS Fr) Tyler Shatley (Jr)/
Reid Webster (So)
Gifford Timothy (So)
? Patrick Destefano* Jay Guillermo* Spencer Region (RS Fr) Oliver Jones*

*-assuming no RS

Not exactly a confidence-inspiring chart. The Tackle spots are a disaster waiting to happen right now. Obviously some educated guesswork goes into this and the Tackle spots are more guesswork than anything. I think some folks put too much emphasis on the chart, particularly on OL, but its here for tracking purposes anyway. E.g., if the starter at LG or RG goes down, it doesn't mean that Beasley and Shatley go right in. Its more likely that Norton fills a spot if they go down. It just depends on the overall ranking of the guys, not the specific position.

If the group of Battle-Thomas-Freeman is better on the left side, then Thomas gets moved inside from LT. I think that in the end, thats what you will see in 2012. In the past, they've talked about possibly moving Webster to RT, or even Timothy inside, so the only definite positioning is that Freeman is going to start at Center. Everything else is up for grabs. I'd just be worried about how many they say they have to play with this fall. An injury would be horrible if they only profess confidence in 5 or 6 guys.

Shatley being moved to OL can be taken two ways: either they think he won't duplicate the same 200-300 snaps at NG next year, or that they have such little confidence in Beasley, Webster and Davis that they think a guy who played 2nd-string NG will be able to step in and play OG. Some think Shatley will come right over and start, but I won't project that.

I would not be surprised if Eric MacLain gets moved to OT because of his lack of outright footspeed, but he should get his start at TE for the spring.

It feels like I say this every year, but the entire group needs to get into better condition. Region came in as a blimp and after watching the Drill videos I don't think he's lost enough of that jello. Davis also came in as a blimp but has lost a chunk of that fat, yet needs to cut some more. Beasley played his last year of HS with a good build and then ballooned up afterwards. Shaq Anthony needed a year on RS to gain muscle mass.

Incoming Help: We always project freshmen to take a RS up front unless they are really outstanding prospects. Battle was raw out of HS and would've taken a RS had he not gone to Fork Union. I think though that he will be the surprise out of this class and end up playing some at LT, if not starting at some point. Joe Gore got put at DE and after the knee injury they moved him to OT where he belonged. He's another athletic one we project to contribute in 2012. The other newcomers should all take a redshirt.

Pass Blocking

Clemson's OL has ranged from bad to very good in pass blocking over the last several years. In 2009, aside from Derrick Morgan or when our Head Coach signaled the wrong protection, our Line did a very good job protecting Kyle Parker. In 2008 it was off/on due to injuries and no depth (OFFER BOARD) at all. In 2010 it was similarly good/bad, but the stats do show relatively few sacks given up by the Tigers. 2011 was a different story. The new scheme is simpler than the last one, and theres no excuse for the starting RG to have to ask the Center who he's supposed to block.

Clemson Sacks Allowed
Year Allowed/Games National Rank ACC Ranking
2011 33/14 85th 9th
2010 18/13 26 3rd
2009 19/14 31 2
2008 33/13 103 11
2007 35/13 100 8
2006 15/13 6 1st

Clemson lost a total of 229 yards on those 33 sacks, 104th nationally, which put us in serious long-yardage situations. At once you may want to put all of this on Caldwell and the linemen, but I think there were some issues with protection calls and bad decisions by the QB, bad RB blocking from backups, and some lazyness by the linemen. Together that makes for the sorry figures you see above.

Morris said after the season that of the total figure, 10 were on Tajh Boyd for holding the ball too long and 7 were on the WRs for doing something that messed up the whole timing of the play. I don't know if I'd put that much on WRs, but Tajh bears responsibility for a good chunk of these sacks nevertheless.

Walker improved in his pass blocking in 2011, but was largely invisible on the right side. His lack of range and athleticism really shows up against the quicker Ends he faces, but he does keep his base pretty solidly in the pass set and his kick slide is good enough. His problem is when he raises his pads, and then he'll lose that base and just lunges into the rusher. The most damning of his games are when we get beat by a 3-man rush, where we could easily see him back off in the pass set and get upright immediately.

McClain is McClain, generally clueless against every front or stunt the defense shows him and unable to block Safeties and LBs who run right up his gap. Its hard to envision any other Guards being any worse in the pass game, and in truth there is no lineman who missed more assignments, yet he started every game anyway. His problem is that he loses his base too easily because he rarely gets good leverage. He doesn't get his arms fully extended into contact and when they can get under his pads, he's whipped. He'll try to bend at the waist and lunges after that.

Phil Price didn't look all that great to me in Spring when I saw him beaten by Josh Watson in scrimmages. We didn't think there was any chance he could hold off Thomas at LT once we started facing good DEs, especially the ones for FSU. However, no other impressed more and I wish we had more linemen who would get pissed off at the negativity they read about themselves, and the fanbase's perennial pessimism about the OL, and then go out and prove otherwise.

Next year, if we can pin down the LT situation, we have to expect the pass blocking to improve. 85th is not acceptable at Clemson. To me this is probably the most damning statistic one could use against Caldwell.

Run Blocking

Probably the most subjective evaluation of any position on the field is the ability to run block. Brad Scott says a grade of "75% is winning football". Thats awful, 75% = 7-5/8-4 seasons. In our opinion, the grade for winning football should be at least 85%. Bear in mind this score usually counts run + pass plays, and even the Coach grades subjectively, yet the bulk of the missed assignments are coming in run blocking. The cause is part technique (bad angles off the snap) and part S&C, where the lack of hip flexibility and explosion is evident.

I haven't been as happy to see a Lineman graduate and leave since Lambert left as I am to see McClain's lazy ass leave. On 50% of run plays you'd see him not in contact with anyone at all when the whistle blew, and his blocking on the buck sweep was even worse than that. It makes no sense to see a pulling Guard just cut out beyond the Tackle and not wrap around to hit a LB or actually hit anyone at all. At least 3/4ths of the bucksweep plays we ran would show McClain running downfield without hitting a single soul while the man he should've hit snuck through to hit Ellington. When he does get his hands on somebody, he has a tendency to get overextended with his lower half and isn't a real fluid guy in the hips either.

Landon Walker would tell you how much pride the right-side takes in the run game and then when you watch them on Saturday, you wonder just what game he was watching when he said that. Maybe he watches films of the 1989 OL, because when I want to see someone stand up and not move anyone, its him. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when a guy like Landon tells his coach that he missed his blocks against Wofford or Troy because they used a 3-man unconventional front. When he gets upright in the run game, he doesn't have the ability to create any movement at all. His punches have zero force to them and he has no hip explosion to get off the ball. When he has to veer inside or out, he rarely gets to the 2nd level to stop anyone in the open field.

David Smith was replaced by Thomas after his shoulder injury in a game where Dabo called him out for lack of toughness, despite the fact that he played almost the entire game with the busted shoulder that Dabo knew about. I'm still struggling with that one. Smith isn't a better athlete or player than Thomas, but he is better than McClain, who Dabs would never call out by name to the press and yet was in no danger of losing his starting spot. Smith's difficulty is that he lacks a great initial step off the snap and his initial movement is upright off the ball, causing him to extend his long arms into contact and lunge a bit in order to reach defenders. He's not particularly great in open space despite his length, probably due to a lack of flexibility. He does fire off low enough and gets better leverage than the RG counterpart, but doesn't stay engaged to the whistle either.

Before the season, we told you that you would notice Dalton Freeman a lot more. The C is much more important as a run blocker in a scheme where the IZ is run so tight. I am not one of those who thinks Freeman was ever a serious threat to move to the NFL because frankly he was not a dominant Center in 2011, Guard play to each side notwithstanding. Freeman could not move the undersized NGs for Troy, Wofford, Georgia Tech or WV at all, and just wasn't consistent enough otherwise. He has to be able to generate some explosion off the ball better and move his feet to become a good run blocker.

Price was rarely evident in the run game, but he does have enough quickness in close to get the reach block and he stays engaged through the whistle. On the bucksweep he usually did reach and seal his End well enough to keep him out of the backfield.

Thomas could have similar comments as Smith, except that Thomas doesn't end up on the ground as much. He does move his feet better but doesn't fire off the ball well enough. Where he ends up in 2012 we cannot say, but if he stays at Guard he will have to get off better and improve his punches.

Since 2006, when injuries cost us our best against Virginia Tech, we have not zone blocked consistently well at all. One game will look great, and the next will be total garbage. The kicker is that zone plays are a base component of our offense and essentially all spread offenses. It does not matter if its a 2 point or 3 point stance when guys don't know where to go. Shotgun runs and most single-back sets run zones. Chad Morris stated that he would use more gap scheme plays in 2012, which translates into running more Power O and Counter plays, but this does not say that IZ will not be a key component in the offense.

Caldwell may be the driver as to why this switch is occuring, but the lack of experience in 2012 is another good reason. While zone is easy in principle, it is something that has to be repped endlessly to get right. Gap schemes have other rules, but the OL knows where to go pre-snap a bit better, and that is easier for a youngster.

Still, the inability for 4 returning starters to generate an interior push is indicting to any OL coach.

The Verdict

In the 2011 analysis, 96% of the vote supported hiring Caldwell. He has been a good coach in the past and we don't like to be harsh on a coach in his first year. We're still excited to have him and hope the drama about himself and Morris is more fiction than fact, but we know they have had serious arguments.

I think though that this review will be harsh next spring, because there seems to me to be no way the OL doesn't get worse in 2012. They are just too inexperienced up front to be dominant, and with Batson still training them its hard to be too optimistic. This group could reap the benefits of the Training Table the most when it comes online next month though.

Clemson needs a doubled offer board up front, and between that, better OL coaching, a new S&C coach and a training table, maybe we'll start making some damn progress.