Well, spring came and went and now it's time to enter the offseason (which is dark and full of terrors). But in order to help you make it through the offseason, may I help in presenting you with a spring summary of the Clemson offensive line? Well, you've read this far; what's a couple thousand words more, am I right?
Going into the spring, the biggest question presented to the offensive line was with regards as to who would replace Jay Guillermo at center. He was a consistent player in the middle of our offensive line for the last 2.5 years after he supplanted the much maligned Ryan Norton midway through the 2014 campaign. The two front runners to be the heir at center are RS Jr Justin Falcinelli and RS So (and former DT) Gage Cervenka.
Falcinelli and Cervenka offer a bit different mold of player at the position. Falcinelli is more of a thicker build and offers more playing experience, while Cervenka is a leaner and more athletic option but has had minimal exposure to the role of center. The best way to put it is that Falcinelli probably offers a higher floor than Cervenka, but Cervenka has the higher ceiling. This reminds me a lot of the 2014 situation with Norton and Gullermo, and heading into fall camp the safe bet is on Falcinelli to be getting the majority of the first team reps.
But this, I believe, is mostly based upon seniority. Falcinelli has some mild to severe deficiencies with regards to lateral agility, pass protection (both making calls and in pass sets), and snapping the ball (which is kind of a big deal). When I watch Falcinelli play, he just seems to be a heavy player. Average to below average footspeed, minimal handfight and spotty hand placement, and an inability to climb effectively to the second level. If this doesn't remind some of you of Ryan Norton, then (if you can stand it) go back and watch the 2014 game in Tallahassee.
Cervenka on the other hand, while he has better lateral agility and more hand fight (thanks to a background as a high school state champion wrestler) but seems to get out in front of himself some and lunge at players. This could lead to disaster when dealing with a DT or NG that has a decent swim move, as they would merely just slide right past Cervenka and immediately disrupt the play. Cervenka needs to learn to be more patient behind his pads, but this will come with time and technique refinement. Another point for Cervenka to fine tune will just be the mental part of the game due to his relative inexperience at center.
There are two other players listed at C for the 2017 season, RS Fr Matthew Ryan and RS So Zach Giella. Both are more developmental players that will continue to take some time to groom and mature before being key contributors. Both have solid size for the position and it would not be surprising to see either cross train at the guard spots.
Guard is probably the one position on the entire offense that lacks drama of breaking in new players or lack of depth concerns, etc. There are probably 6 players on the roster currently that we could slide in at either guard spot and have some degree of confidence in. First, you have the returning starters in Taylor Hearn and Tyrone Crowder who are better run blockers than pass protectors. Both have also struggled with weight issues and conditioning during their time at Clemson which has limited both players in playing time but also can contribute to their woes in pass protection too. Crowder, who was tempted with the an early entry into the NFL draft this spring, and Hearn will both need to be senior leaders on this line and help focus the group in to master their craft as we break in many new components on offense.
Next up in the second tier, you would have John Simpson and Maverick Morris. Simpson has a very high ceiling based off of what I saw in 2016; he is a very fluid player at OG and he pulls and climbs with ease. As with Cervenka though, Simpson has a tendency to lunge out, especially in pass protection which is the area in which he needs to improve the most to push Hearn for playing time at LG. Morris is a verteran utility OL that has spent time at all spots on the line, minus C. He is usually one of the first players off the bench for either guard spot or out at RT. Morris has average skills in pass and run blocking, but does have some decent ability to pull and reach the second level. Morris will continue to be called upon to offer versatile depth.
In the third group of guards you will find Justin Falcinelli again and Cade Stewart. Falcinelli was detailed above with the centers, and he is probably a better guard just because we don't have to worry about snap fiascoes if he is playing at guard. Stewart is a player that is probably not ready to play meaningful snaps for Clemson just yet. A grey shirt offered player out of local DW Daniel, he still needs time to properly acclimate to the college game. Originally listed as a C out of high school, it would not be surprising to see Stewart cross train at all 5 spots on the offensive line due to his size. He could end up being a poor man's Maverick Morris
The 2017 recruiting class signed 2 players that could potentially offer immediate depth on the interior in case of injuries. Blake Vinson and Matt Bockhorst are both good OL talents that Clemson signed out of Florida and Ohio, respectively. Bockhorst will be enrolling in the fall, and after coming off an ACL injury, will be on the redshirt bubble. Vinson was present for the spring though, and while you can tell from a physcial standpoint that he is still green, he has some tools to work with that can develop him into a solid utility player, once again in the Maverick Morris mold but with more upside. Vinson spent reps at both tackle and guard in the spring but his first crack at action will likely be on the interior.
Tackle is the one position on offense (outside of replacing Deshaun Watson) that I fret about the most. And it's not due to the starters that we have on the edges, either. It's the depth. Once Sean Pollard went down in the spring game with an apparent ankle injury, the white team offensive line when from "meh" to "someone think of the children" and "that man had a family." Chandler Reeves got inserted at RT and it was tough to watch. Granted, the spring game is not indicative of true pecking order at OT because the roster is split, but outside of Hyatt, Pollard, and Anchrum, there are not a lot of players that inspire confidence on the edge.
Hyatt is a known entity and you know what you're getting with him. He is a great pass blocker with some upside in the running game. He is best suited for a zone scheme as he doesn't blow anyone off the ball with regularity, but does very well with hat and hand placement. Hyatt has a chance to turn pro early with a good junior season, and if he does so and is drafted highly, it would immensely help the recruitment of other blue chip players to our offensive front.
Pollard did the best he could at RT last season after being forced into the full time gig once Jake Fruhmorgen decided to move on from the Clemson program. As it is with many other young offensive linemen, he could lunge out a bit at defenders and his hand placement wasn't always ideal. However, Pollard has the proper mold to be a great RT and this offseason will be important for his progression, but I didn't see much in spring that lead me to believe that these tendencies have been completely broken. Granted, this could also be due to the fact that Clelin Ferrell is not human and some poor fellow had to try to block him on each play.
Tremayne Anchrum is Brandon Thomas 2.0. When looking at both players measurables on paper. you would question why they would be used at tackle. Both are 6'3" (ideal tackle height usually starts at 6'5"+) and neither were particularly light to make up for their "guard mold". But what both do have are vines for arms, which allows them to punch and extend on edge players. Anchrum has plus athleticism and ever since enrolling early last spring has shown that he is more than capable of holding his own at both left and right tackle. Anchrum really needs to work on anchoring at the point of attack better and mirroring better in pass pro.
After the first three options in Hyatt, Pollard, and Anchrum, that's when things start to get dicey. Maverick Morris has spent time out at both tackle spots but can struggle with blitz recognition on the edge as well as dealing with speedier edge rushers. He does offer upside as a run blocker but he is best suited at guard. The next man up would be Chandler Reeves and after being forced into a medical redshirt in 2016, he is still working to be a viable option at tackle (he was always a project player and in truth, I wasn't wild of his take in 2016).
Once you work your way past Morris and Reeves on the depth chart, you arrive at walk-on in Caleb Bevelle and then that's it. There's no one else on the spring game roster that has played OT. In a pinch I guess you could try Hearn, Simpson, or Vinson at tackle, but those experiments would probably go poorly. In the fall, we will add mammoth, 6'7", true freshman Noah DeHond but he will need some time to learn proper technique as in high school he played against inferior competition and was able to get by just by being much larger than anyone else on the field. He does play with a mean streak though and has the aforementioned elite size, so there are tools present for Robbie Caldwell to work with.
Looking Towards the Fall
Clemson is more than likely banking on the offensive line being solid enough to lean on the running game early as we break in a new QB, which means that we will be looking for continuity up front so the starting 5 can "gel". But, I don't really see the center battle being settled until were a few games deep in the season and if John Simpson continues to improve, he will push for some serious playing time on the interior. And if we lose Hyatt or Pollard at tackle, alarms should start sounding because things could get dicey in a hurry.
My feeling is that this offensive line has a chance to be a bit better in run blocking this season. But, bear in mind that the run game will be well served by a diverse gameplan, solid QB play to open up the box, and RBs that can hit the hole consistently. Out of those 3 key points, only one (gameplanning) can I say with confidence that we have a fair chance in completing.
And in pass protection, I would like to see improvement from Pollard at RT to help keep the pocket cleaner for the new QB, and Hearn and Crowder could use some technique refinement too. But, other key pieces of pass protection as an offensive unit are RBs making their blocks and QBs keying their hot reads. I'm not trying to deflect the offensive lines responsibilities, but let's not be too quick to judge the early returns at the beginning of the season. This new offense will take time to get clicking, especially if last year's opening weeks are any indication.
Ultimately, this offensive line has a chance to be a strength of this team but a lot will rely on the guys putting in the work to get better in technique and in prime physical condition. If we can consistently rely on the offensive line to open holes, give the new QBs time to read the D, and our receivers break open, it's not outlandish to think that we have a more than fair chance competing with any team in the country.