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2015 Clemson Season Review: Offensive Line

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Overall we here at STS were not particularly optimistic about the offensive line going into this season. There were, in fairness, reasons for pessimism. The line returned little experience and would be starting a true freshman on the blind side. Depth was next to nonexistent at certain positions. No one saw the season Clemson had coming. Of all groups the offensive line probably beat expectations most dramatically. Most of us expected Deshaun Watson to be pretty good, no one expected that our offensive line would be a strength for the team. If you dared suggest our offensive line would even stalemate Alabama’s defensive front you would have been laughed out of the conversation. Some of this is due to luck, our best lineman (Mac Lain) was rarely injured and the two offensive line starters to miss significant time were the two with the most competent backups. Some of our low sack rates are due to Deshaun Watson’s quick release, fantastic pocket presence and athleticism. Some of our success running the ball in short yardage was due to the fact that Wayne Gallman runs like a man determined to use his body to settle a grudge with the very idea of tackling.

Even factoring in luck and other player’s strengths the offensive line was fantastic in 2015, and the emergence of the unit as an elite one was key to Clemson’s season. An inexperienced unit should not have every single player handle stunts and blitzes as well as the offensive line did in 2015 and that is a testament to solid coaching. I can only think of a handful of glaring assignment busts, which is remarkable. As a whole the offensive line merited at a minimum a B+, and you could talk me into an A- with very little effort. The offensive line was athletic, strong, intelligent and just plain mean. They played to the whistle on every snap, and it showed in how often they put guys on their backs. I know nothing of the character of these men off the field; on the field I can tell you that they are bastards and that that is one of the highest complements an offensive lineman can be paid. These guys looked to first make the right block, then put that man into the either the dirt, sideline, or run him off the field if at all possible. It was amazing to watch, especially on film after the game. Parsing out individual offensive line play is hard because so much of it is based on how the unit performs as a whole. Regardless of how well the rest of the line plays, one player missing his assignment can ruin a play, two players messing up usually ruins a play. Regardless I’ll do my best, working from left tackle to right tackle and ranking each player who logged significant snaps (Disclosure: our most recent snap numbers are from before the Alabama game).

Left Tackle

Mitch Hyatt was the man here all year; he wound up playing the fourth most snaps on the entire offense as a true freshman. That is absurd. If I were grading on the curve of freshman left tackles I’d rank him an A+, and I cannot wait to see what he looks like after a proper offseason in the weight room. True freshman just do not step in and become solid players on national championship caliber offensive lines. Hyatt had the best freshman year on the team, and it isn’t even close. He more than lived up to his recruiting rating. As it stands, he merits a B rating without the curve, as there were weaknesses in his game. Hyatt currently has the athleticism to make any block in space you could ever ask, blocking linebackers and even defensive backs ten or twenty yards downfield. That is elite athleticism. His strength and the mental aspect of the game aren’t quite elite yet. While he was great at getting to the second level if there was no one in his way, Hyatt struggled to move larger defensive linemen off the ball without a combo block. Hyatt also could be confused, particularly early in the season, by good blitz schemes. In addition, and it only showed against defensive ends with fantastic pass rush moves and athleticism, he was susceptible to advanced pass rush techniques. Hyatt was quick enough he would rarely be run around and strong enough (and located far enough from the quarterback) it’d take too long to run him over. But, if a defensive end could match or come close to Hyatt’s strength or speed Hyatt could be beat a handful of times a game by a well executed spin move. Every single one of these weaknesses can be fixed with coaching and time in the weight room. Overall the team asked a lot of Hyatt and he came through, his potential is that of an elite NFL left tackle and it shows.

Left Guard

Eric Mac Lain was first team All ACC guard, and he garnered honorable mentions on some All American lists. He was the offensive lines leader and best player, almost never coming off the field or making a mistake. He possesses excellent strength and can usually move a defensive tackle off the ball single handedly, with help from the center or left tackle he put some guys on skates or into the grass. What set Mac Lain apart was his athleticism. Despite being listed at somewhere between 305 and 315 pounds he still moves like the tight end he was recruited as. Men with his size should not be as nimble as he was over 2015. Mac Lain was perfectly capable of pulling not just on power (where good footwork and the short distance traveled can hide lack of speed) but pulling across the formation as a lead blocker on sweeps and actually finding someone to block. When the team chose to pull a lineman on Watson rollouts the task usually of serving as Watson’s personal protector fell on Mac Lain. He was almost never run over, almost never ran around and rarely seemed to make assignment mistakes. I have nothing but praise. A+ and he will be missed next year.

Center

We began the year thinking the position belonged to Ryan Norton, and for two games it did. Unfortunately Norton was lost for the season early in the year. Fortunately for Clemson Jay Guillermo did a pretty excellent job of stepping into his shoes. I admit, in the Chad Morris based offense, but if Guillermo was tasked with making the pass protection calls he performed well. The blitzes that got through against Clemson were generally well schemed, and as a whole Clemson was not susceptible to the blitz. Guillermo rarely messed up snapping the ball and that is a lot harder than it sounds. Snapping the ball once is easy. Snapping the ball perfectly, or near perfectly, often times with motion requiring delicate timing, hundreds of times? That’s hard before you even factor in the blocking Guillermo had to do. Athletically he was pretty good, there were no moments that wowed you but he routinely got to the second level and got his hands on linebackers. Centers are generally your quickest offensive lineman, they have to be, since the act of snapping means they are starting each play about a half step slower than everyone else. Strength, relative to what being a center calls for, is where Guillermo excelled. He was not the strongest offensive lineman on the team, however there were few times a defensive tackle lined up over Guillermo and was able to just bulldoze him. That is not true of even average centers. The fact that he was so strong became meant we rarely had to assign guards to double team a defensive tackle in pass protection. It also freed our guards to release to the second level more quickly on running plays. With the offensive line a rising tide lifts all boats. Like Hyatt and Mac Lain Guillermo played with very little help. He was top four on the team in snaps (along with Hyatt, Mac Lain and Watson) despite starting fewer games than any of those three. His play earned him a solid A, the fact he did it after battling depression and alcohol abuse makes him one of my favorite players on the team. I think with a strong senior season he could be a mid round NFL draft pick, and he earned an A rating.

Right Guard

This was probably our deepest position, with at least one capable backup (Morris) and another guy who would have probably seen the field as a rotational left guard had anyone but Mac Lain been manning the position (Falcinelli). This is all getting ahead of talking about Tyrone Crowder. Crowder is the iconic right guard, for better or worse. Strong enough to blow nearly anyone off the ball but slow enough that quicker defensive tackles could shoot the gaps on him. Crowder was capable of pulling on power but was a liability when asked to block in space on screens or sweeps. Crowder could, and would, blow defensive lineman five yards downfield but would look lost at times if he had to find a linebacker in space. Crowder was able to rely on technique to get set up well initially in his pass protection, but the longer the play lasted the more likely a defensive player was to be able to expose his lack of lateral mobility. Once beaten Crowder did not have the speed to recover. Fortunately the Morris (and so far ScElliot) offense is one based mostly on quick passes and inside zone blocking. His effectiveness was maximized by the scheme, and his run blocking prowess cannot be overstated. He is our best pure drive blocker. Given how rarely his weaknesses were exposed I think he merits a B- grade. I don’t know how much better he can get, but he is a pretty good right guard right now and that’s hard to complain about.

Maverick Morris played more than any of our backups except for Fruhmorgen and, I suppose if you want to be pedantic, Guillermo. Some of this is due to the fact that there is no glaring weakness to his game. Some of this is due to the fact Crowder missed a game. Some of this is due to the fact I suspect Crowder wasn’t in good enough shape to reliably stay on the field the entirety of a game. Morris is probably about as fast as Crowder, maybe a step quicker. His strength isn’t at Crowder’s level but he was never a threat to be run over. Never stood out, which sounds like an insult and I do not mean it as one. The reality for most programs in the nation is that they will start at least one offensive lineman who can be best described as "never really excels but rarely messes up." The fact that he provided that level of play, and as a redshirt sophomore, is awesome. He earned a C and has room to turn into a pretty decent player for us next year; I’d say he’s our current leading candidate for left guard.

Right Tackle

Joe Gore was one of few known commodities coming into the season, and right tackle was a position where depth existed in the form of our other highly regarded offensive tackle recruit, Jake Frugmorgen. Gore’s name was evident in his play; he excelled as a run blocker. Occasionally blowing smaller defensive ends off the ball so badly it was comical, regularly capable of pushing DE’s a couple of yards up field singlehandedly. When given the chance to combo block with Leggett there were very few defensive ends in the country Gore could not move off the ball. He was a strong offensive lineman on a line whose strength was, well, a strength. Athletically (relative to position) Gore is somewhere between Mac Lain and Crowder. Gore was capable of handling most defensive ends, but there were times when guys just pinned their ears back and beat him with a speed rush. His athleticism just was not top end; it was plenty good enough most of the time, but there were a few times a game he would give up pressure. The fact he played right tackle meant that Watson could generally see and evade this rush, but it is a knock on his play and enough to make him a B level tackle. I’d take the kind of performance he turned in happily any day of the week, but there is room for improvement.

Fruhmorgen played most out of all backups (except Guillermo, ok) and played the best. He showed flashes of being a great right tackle, capable of occasionally driving defensive linemen off the ball and showing a knack for the timing required on combo blocks (leave too early, don’t push the lineman far enough downfield, leave too late and the linebacker makes it a moot point) as well as at least as much quickness as Gore. His play and technique are more advanced than you would hope for from a freshman lineman. I feel totally comfortable with him stepping into Gore’s shoes as the heir apparent at right tackle. He’s a B- player as a freshman and was only kept off the field but a senior with a season of experience under his belt. That’s reason to be excited for 2016.