The 2015 edition of the Clemson offensive line will be a mixed bag of sorts across the 2 deep—many redshirt freshmen and two true freshmen will be led by a group of 3 seniors. Joe Gore, Ryan Norton, and Eric Mac Lain will be the senior leaders of this group, but in the opinion of this writer, that leadership is shaky at best.
Eric Mac Lain was a failed tackle experiment that moved inside to guard and has still struggled at times in the pass pro department. Ryan Norton is a turnstyle and will get bullied by physical front 7's. Finally, Joe Gore looks like Tarzan but for the most part has played like Jane throughout his career. Gosh, way to start this article on a positive note, right?
Well, let's relax Tiger fans. Take a deep breath. It can't all be gloom and doom right? In my opinion, this line really can only improve this year from what was a very lackluster 2014. According to Football Outsiders, the 2014 line ranked 101st in adjusted line yards with a score of 92.6. The metric identifies anything south of 100 to be bad. Yikes. We were somewhat solid in pass protection, ranking 26th in adjusted sack rate but that number could drop this year with inexperience across the line and questionable pass blocking on the right side, with Joe Gore and Tyrone Crowder manning the RT and RG spots, respectively. Gore must improve mentally and show that he can at least play assignment first, whereas Crowder's technique still needs refining.
That being said, let's take a look at who we lost.
Let Bygones Be Bygones
Isiah Battle: After a career at Clemson that started with much promise vs. LSU in emergency duty, things quickly turned sour. Battle never really played up to his potential. Even worse, he was a headache both on and off the field (case in point below).
He left the team this summer and was taken in the supplemental draft by the Rams, and has looked good in preseason action. It's a shame that he couldn't keep his head on straight, but I wish him the best. His departure now thrusts a certain talented youngster into the 2nd most important position in the offense...
Kalon Davis: Davis always struck me as a big guy that never really wanted to play football. He never seemed to have that fire in his belly. Maybe it was the talk of kittens and soccer? (No offense cat fans and soccer bros). Last year, he made me reverse that sentiment, and after Joe Gore became sidelined with an appendix injury (and maybe performance issues...), Davis slid from G to RT and played very admirably. After being deemed slow footed during his tenure at guard, he accumulated 485 snaps but did not allow a single sack at tackle. His pass blocking efficiency ranked number 5 among all offensive linemen last season with a 98.3% average. Impressive indeed. He was a big reason why our offensive line was ranked so well in pass blocking last season. His graduation thrusts Joe Gore back into the RT position.
Reid Webster: I so affectionately called Reid Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Good vs Bad Webster) depending on the play. It seemed at times that he would either rip someones head off and seal a tackle well, or he would not pick up a twist on the interior and miss a linebacker on the second level. Webster was a longtime backup who I never really came to expect much of. When Kalon got the call at RT, Webster's snaps increased. He was a bit of a coin toss on each play. His departure opens the door for Tyrone Crowder to come in at RG.
David Beasley: Beasley consistently made me angry. He had all of the potential in the world, but never had his head in the right place and was never really in the best shape. Sadly, he never became the absolute monster that I though he could have been. He still managed to carve out an Honorable Mention to the All-ACC team in 2014. His graduation allows Eric Mac Lain to come in as the full-time starter.
Oliver Jones: When Jones came to Clemson, he was a true tackle prospect, albeit lowly rated. He never really stayed healthy during his time at Clemson. Due to all of his injuries, he gave up football this past January, having logged just 24 snaps over his career.
Now, let's take a look at first who we have returning and what we can expect from each player this year.
Who's Coming Back?
As you can see above, we only return 5 linemen with real, significant game experience, the most experienced of which is Ryan Norton. If that doesn't rustle your jimmies, I don't know what will. Combined, this group has 30 career starts, 17 of which came last season. Let's look at what player brings to the table individually.
Ryan Norton: Norton provides "experience" for this years offensive line, but also offers probably some of the least physical play on the line. Last season, I thought he may turn the corner and begin to play well. I was wrong. He was dubbed Turnstyle and truly lived up to that moniker. We would often find Norton turned around watching his man run wild in the backfield on both runs and passes. He truly was a disappointment last season. Hopefully by the start of this season, he's learned how to get run over slowly. 2015 Expectations: Get run over slowly.
Joe Gore: It's been said before, but Joe Gore would be first team All-American off the bus. Sadly, you gotta play to really be an All-American. Gore stands at 6 foot 5 and a rock solid 294. Unfortunately, Gore suffers from the condition that he appears to be lost as hell on the field. He's got the body of Adonis, but the mental awareness of a peanut (in terms of football). I will concede that maybe some of his poor play could have been due to his appendix being a turncoat, but I won't say that was the whole issue. It's my sincerest wish that Gore really has put it together this year and plays rather than thinks. He has the physical talent, he just needs to play and play nasty. 2015 Expectations: Graduate from peanut level, play rather than think, and not get overtaken by a true freshman.
Eric Mac Lain: Mac Lain is a failed science experiment (in some regards). We attempted to mold him from a tight end into a tackle, but someone failed to notice his T-Rex arms. Ok, they're not that short, but they're not the type of length you want from a tackle. He often got burned on the edge while at tackle. If injuries strike this year at the tackle spot and Mac Lain moves back outside, it WILL be a long year. But now to look at his guard projection. He still struggles in pass pro, especially when a team twists or stunts to him. He can be a solid run blocker, but sometimes has issues getting to the second level effectively. I would love to assume a year at guard has him a little more seasoned and ready to play on the interior. 2015 Expectations: Become more competent in pass blocking and be somewhat of an asset in the running game. Starter for entire season.
Jay Guillermo: Last season, I was starting to be impressed more and more by Guillermo's play. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken foot a little over midway through the season, thus taking away from his growth and playing time. He does seem to have issues in pass pro at times, but is an effective run blocker and is infinitely more physical than Norton. This past offseason though, he stepped away from the team for undisclosed personal issues, and thus lost some of that conditioning and progression as well. He is now back with the team and working with the second team offensive line. 2015 Expectations: Become first team center post Louisville and be our center through the end of 2016.
Tyrone Crowder: Mr. Crowder is an absolute mauler in the running game. He opens lanes and does the unthinkable for a Clemson lineman....HE ACTUALLY MOVES PEOPLE OFF THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE. Amazing. True poetry. Tears are welling in my eyes as I key this. But then we take a look at his pass blocking and well...it's not the best. He often appears to try to quick set a defender and not really rely on his footwork to get the job done. Granted, you don't want your guards kicksliding 5 yards deep into the backfield, but with the quick set, you absolutely need quick hands, great hand placement, and a sturdy base. Often, Crowder struggled with the hand placement, allowing the defender to quickly shed and move laterally past Crowder's quick set. This year, I look for marked improvement in pass pro and footwork development. 2015 Expectations: Be a feared run blocker from RG and have marked improvement in the passing game. Potential All-ACC 3rd team candidate.
Maverick Morris: He only appeared in 4 games last year, mostly in mop up duty. Some of the time he was at tackle, but it became apparent he's better suited for a guard position (aka feet made of pine tar). There really hasn't been too much for me to scout with Morris, and really I don't know if that's an indictment of his talent or my level of care in blowouts. 2015 Expectations: Log some snaps with the second string offense, but more than likely be our 4th option at guard if someone goes down. Needs more time to progress.
Justin Falcinelli: This young interior lineman from Maryland shows some promise and fire. By some accounts, in practice, he was struggling with his move to center. Caldwell challenged him, and he responded well. Coming off a redshirt year as a true freshman, the bar is set low. Game experience will serve him well. 2015 Expectations: General mop up duty playing time, and occasional spot duty at 2nd team guard.
Taylor Hearn: Hearn is another lineman coming off of a redshirt season as a true freshman. He has looked decent at tackle and may have to stick there this season due to lack of depth. Moving forward I see him as a swing guard or maybe a right tackle. 2015 Expectations: Spot duty at guard and tackle with the second team.
Now wait a minute...didn't I say that this line can only improve from 2014? There really wasn't too much sunshine and happiness in what I just wrote. Well, my enthusiasm comes from this next group of guys.
The Young Bucks
So maybe I should have put a cliff-note for the improvement of the line—it probably won't take off until 2016. Here's to hoping it's sooner, but these guys have talent.
Mitch Hyatt: This was our intended future at LT. Now, he is our present. He plays with a nasty demeanor, has length and athleticism, and is a quick learner. He has the potential to be great, truly great. He is being seasoned every day by Shaq Lawson and he will only continue to get better. 2015 Expectations: Full season at LT, Second Team All-ACC, First Team Freshman All-American.
Jake Fruhmorgen: Jake is a talented technician who will definitely play this season. He will primarily back up Joe Gore at RT, but, honestly, he could probably play all 5 line positions. He still needs to develop physically, but he is another offensive lineman that could become a great one here. He is essentially all of our tackle depth this season. 2015 Expectations: Second team at both tackle spots and maybe some reps on the interior. Starter at RT in spring ball.
Noah Green: From the upstate of SC, Green is a physically gifted big man who can move well. He is still learning how to harness his talent and use it on the football field. He will redshirt this season, and it is definitely needed. 2015 Expectations: Use the redshirt year to push for the starting LG spot in spring ball.
Zach Geilla: He has had the biggest jump from high school to college. The speed of the game has been getting to him, but that's to be expected with young linemen. Hyatt and Fruh are the exception to the rule. Geilla will also redshirt in 2015. 2015 Expectations: Acclimate to the game and in spring rotate on the interior of the line.
These young guys will all be key players for us in the near and extended future. I am truly excited to watch these young men grow. Now, let's summarize.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths: This year's line could see an improvement in the running game. The possible combo of Crowder and Guillermo in the middle of this line makes me salivate. Granted that tight ends need to do their jobs for the run game to be effective, I think the line may begin to show signs of life. Pass pro should be somewhat effective this year, but don't be surprised to see us go max protect with some 3 man routes this season. The future is starting to look brighter for the offensive line, but were not out of the woods yet.
Weaknesses: Depth is what stands out the most for me. If we lose Hyatt or Gore, we very may well need to adjust our season expectations—the depth behind them is a question mark. Fruh has talent but has been exposed some in camp. Hearn lacks experience and a true knack for tackle. And Mac Lain...well, we've all seen how that's gone. Outside of depth, I would say cohesion on the line is also an issue. Cohesion, especially with two underclassman, will be an issue. It is imperative that lines communicate and relay information well to handle blitz responsibilities.
This years line has potential to progress from 2014, especially in the run department (then again, it's hard to be worse than last year). By mid-season, I expect there to be some changes on the line as Guillermo gets back into shape and Fruh matures, overtaking Gore just on talent alone. The original starting line, from left to right, will be: Hyatt, Mac Lain, Norton, Crowder, Gore. The line by the end of the year will be: Hyatt, Mac Lain, Guillermo, Fruhmorgen. Finally, I expect this year's line to rank somewhere in the low 70's to high 80's in Football Outsiders cumulative metric. The biggest leap should be in the power success rate, jumping up from 50.8%, I set the bar at 65% for this year. That would take us from 126th on power success rate to roughly 80th, a significant jump. If we improve in our running game and short yardage, we will have a monster offense. The line is holding back this offense right now, but I think improvement is coming. Let's hope it comes sooner rather than later.