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2018 Clemson Football Season Preview: Offensive Line

NCAA Football: Clemson Practice Anderson Independent Mail-USA TO

Despite losing both starters at guard (Tyrone Crowder and Taylor Hearn) and key depth in utility lineman Maverick Morris, most people believe the 2018 edition of the Clemson Tigers offensive line will be a strength. With three returning starters, others with some starting experience, a handful of redshirted talent looking to contribute, and 5-star freshman snared from the clutches of he who shall not be named in Ohio, there are plenty of pieces in place to help take this line to the next level. Let’s take a look at each one of our big beefy sons one by one.

The Starters

LT Mitch Hyatt, Sr, 6’5”, 300

Mitch surprised most people and was touted as a “6-star recruit” upon announcing his return for his senior year. Most of the draft advisory board leaks and rumors back up what has been said here for years, that while Hyatt is a technician, he is not a punishing run blocker and sometimes can be seen as too “light in the britches” (as if being 300 pounds is being thin). This lead to a mid-round projection and Hyatt’s return.

But, Hyatt’s return is massive. It cannot be understated how huge it is having Hyatt return this year, as he has been a stalwart in protecting the blindside of our QBs for the past three years and will be counted on to do so again in 2018. While there are other OTs on this roster that could fill in for Hyatt, none would do so as well as the 2017 Jacobs Winner.

If Hyatt can prove he can be a more dominant run blocker, then there is a great chance that he could be in the Outland Trophy conversation and garner 1st round draft pick potential come May of 2019.

LG John Simpson, JR, 6’4”, 315

Big John Simpson is a true Junior from South Carolina. From his arrival to Clemson in 2016, he was already winning awards for the “off the bus team.” While he has always had the physique and athleticism to be dominant (I can still remember getting giddy doing film review during his freshman year, and watching him climb to LBs after a clean pull), he sometimes can struggle with the more mental side of the game.

After logging 300 snaps over 12 games last fall, Simpson will now step into a starting role, and by all accounts, his head is no longer swimming. He is large but limber in the run game, and has shown some upside in pass pro. In pass pro, he is always looking for work, but can fall victim to twist and stunt games which is where the mental focus and film work come in. He also has the tendency to miss strikes on his quick sets. If Big John can just work on keeping the mental side of his game sharp, he has All-ACC potential.

C Justin Falcinelli, RS Sr, 6’4”, 315

Falcinelli was my biggest concern going into 2017 on the offensive front. He had a tendency to try to launch snaps into orbit and if he wasn’t doing that, he was often struggling with his footwork and hand placement. Rumor had it that he had put in the work to stay ahead of younger players on the roster, but I had my doubts.

But in cases like this, I love being wrong.

Falcinelli proved to be a rock in the middle of the line, logging a ridiculous 1,229 snaps over 14 starts on his way to an Honorable Mention ACC performance. This year, he will be counted on being a plus player in the center of the line that will help make the new starters on either side of him at guard feel right at home. If Falci can improve his foot speed a bit and show his ability to climb and pull from the center spot, then he has a chance of making an NFL roster next year, or at worst getting onto a practice squad.

RG Sean Pollard, JR, 6’5” 315

Continuing down the starting line, we get to former right tackle Sean Pollard. Pollard has made the move inside, which can’t be pinned to one thing in particular, but more so a variety of reasons. The first being that guard better suits his strengths, as an average pass blocker but a solid run blocker, the move to guard plays into his strength of being a mauler while getting away from some of the speed rushes he fell victim to. The second reason would be that move was necessary to get our best five on the field.

Now, due to the move and limited film on Pollard at guard via the spring game, it’s tough to know just how well he will settle in at guard. While yes, he does have numerous games starting experience to his name, moving positions like this isn’t as simple as sliding over four feet. The footwork, speed and power of the inside game is much different than that of being on the edge at tackle. Tackles do not pull with the frequency of guards to their inside foot, so watching his footwork on pulls to the far side of the line will be worth paying attention to. And while yes he was a mauler, transitioning inside full time and dealing with some of the beefier lines we will see this year (BC, FSU) will be another watching point. Pollard could grow into his role at guard nicely if he makes the proper adjustments, and a shot at a solid senior year in 2019 and draft status isn’t out of the question.

RT Tremayne Anchrum, JR, 6’2”, 290

While Anchrum may lack on paper the ideal size of a P5 offensive tackle, he more than makes up for it with his athleticism and arm length. Upon his early enrollment in 2016, he instantly reminded me of Brandon Thomas. Thomas was a former TE turned OT for Clemson from 2009 to 2013. Thomas was only 6’3” but had really long arms that allowed him to keep defenders at bay. But, having long arms is only half the battle, those arms needed to be coupled with exceptional hand quickness and fighting in order to succeed. Thomas had that in spades, Anchrum needs to improve here.

Anchrum spot started last year in six games and was more than effective in tallying 577 snaps to his record. So while he is being broken in as a new starter, he is definitely seasoned. If he can up his hand fighting game and not fall victim to lunging into defenders rather than striking them, then he has a fair chance to succeed at a decent level as the fulltime RT.

Other Key Contributors

C/OG Gage Cervenka, RS JR, 6’3”, 320

Cervenka started his career as a defensive tackle at Clemson, but after spending a year redshirting, he was quickly passed up by some young war daddies on the depth chart. With the writing on the wall, Cervenka made the switch to offense. Cervenka comes from a wrestling background and is other worldly strong, thus making this development very intriguing to monitor.

But the intrigue has yet to bear any meaningful fruit. Cervenka only logged 101 snaps last season, but will be counted on this year as likely one of the first men off the bench. And while Cervenka has the strength and has the wrestling pedigree, he still can struggle at times in pass pro. He tends to lunge at players trying to give a vicious punch, but this lunge gets him overextended and a good DT will quickly swim or dip past this blow. If Cervenka wants to ensure he stays ahead of the young talent, his pass pro needs to get cleaned up.

C/OG/OT Cade Stewart, RS So, 6’3”, 290

Stewart has the second most experience in terms of snaps from last season who return this year to the team after logging 98 snaps over 9 games. Stewart was seen as a bit of a project out of local Daniel High School, but has proven to be a bit in the mold of a Maverick Morris. Morris came in as a developmental prospect and after getting into the last two years of his time with the program, he became a key piece off the bench, able to give time at both guard and tackle spots.

I see the same trajectory for Stewart, although I think he lacks the ideal size and foot speed to really stick at LT for more than a few plays. Stewart best projects inside, but his ability to play RT isn’t horrendous. As most OL products from South Carolina, Stewart has had to take time to reshape his body and technique and this year it will be curious to watch and see if he has taken the next step.

OT Chandler Reeves, RS So, 6’7”, 280

Reeves arrived from Georgia as a slim tackle project. Unfortunately, his project got delayed a bit as he was victim of a knee injury during his redshirt campaign. Now finally back to 100% with his knee, he will look to provide tackle depth after logging 53 snaps across 9 games last fall.

Reeves is still light for an OL and really light for an OL of his stature. He really needs to dedicate himself in the weight room otherwise he’s unlikely to log meaningful snaps at Clemson. He also needs to work on getting his mechanics in order, as too many times do I see him allowing defenders well into his body before punching. For a guy that’s tall and light, that spells disaster. Additionally, for a guy his height, pad level is always a concern, so he will need to work on his hip flexibility as well.

OG Matt Bockhorst, RS Fr, 6’3”, 305

Bockhorst earns the title of most appropriately named OL on the team. A name like Bockhorst can only play offensive line, and that’s a no doubter.

Matt will look to be a key interior depth piece this season after coming off a redshirt year. However, I doubt he redshirts last year if he hadn’t suffered a knee injury at the Opening Finals prior to his senior year of high school. The kid is an absolute mauler on the inside. When he latches on, he can absolutely drive people off the ball. What will remain to be seen is how well he performs in pass pro and how well he can pull into space following his recovery.

OT Blake Vinson, RS Fr, 6’5”, 300

Vinson is another OL coming off a redshirt this fall that also suffered a shoulder injury prior to arriving at Clemson. Vinson is currently listed as 2nd string LT, and thus will be counted on to not only gain seasoning this fall, but will be asked to play some significant snaps this fall at both tackle spots.

Vinson is an average player with no obvious flaws, but doesn’t really have tons of strengths either. If he can slowly bring his game along, he could be a solid contributor as a swing tackle. The biggest thing I could note after watching spring game film was his ability to anchor against a bull rush is suspect, but being only 18 months removed from a major shoulder injury, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. His 2018 is another that I will watch closely to see his progression.

C/OG Zach Giella, RS Jr, 6’5”, 300

Giella was a prospect that I was excited about landing all the way back in 2015. While only a 3-star prospect, he had offers from the likes of LSU, Miami, Michigan, and Wisconsin among others. So while he wasn’t exactly highly touted, there was serious interest from some serious powers and serious OL development schools. Unfortunately, to this point, either Giella hasn’t panned out to what we thought he could be or hasn’t put in the work necessary to take his game to the next level.

Giella only logged 34 snaps across 4 games last fall, and is already been listed behind Freshman and Sophmores on the post spring depth chart. If Giella doesn’t garner many snaps this fall, he could be a grad transfer candidate.

OT Noah DeHond, RS Fr, 6’7”, 315

DeHond has the type of size that OL coaches drool over. He is a mammoth specimen and has a mean streak to boot. But as is the case with most huge men coming out of lower level his school ball, he has a lot of bad technique to clean up.

DeHond always had the benefit of being so much larger than everyone, that he could just toss them around like rag dolls at times. Now that he has moved up to elite P5 CFB, his bad habits can bite him in the ass. He tends to bend over with his back rather than use his hips which leads to being susceptible to lunging and thus getting beat by quick DE’s to the edge. And, being the size that he size, sometimes he can pop up out of his stance rather than firing off in the run game. DeHond will likely get spot duty in comfy games and some series during blowouts, but will need to spend this fall cleaning up technique and learning to use his frame as an asset.

The Freshmen

OG/OT Jackson Carman, 6’6”, 330

Carman is obviously the headliner of Clemson’s 2018 OL recruiting class (so many options to choose from there...). He comes to us by way of Fairfield, Ohio, after spurning longtime expert favorite Ohio State and darkhorse candidate USC. Carman plays nasty, mean, and overweight.

Carman has all the potential in the world, but after early enrolling north of 350 pounds, he had to put in a lot of work this spring and summer to slim down to his current 330 mark. I would love to see him at about 320 before really placing him at OT for meaningful reps. This fall, Carman will avoid a redshirt and will like rotate at guard and tackle while he acclimates to he college game. His run blocking is solid, but dealing with the speed of edge rushers and blitzes will be his biggest hurdle to clear.

OL Jordan McFadden, 6’4”, 290

McFadden arrives to Clemson as the other member of our 2018 OL class by way of Dorman High School in Roebuck, South Carolina. McFadden was a Virginia Tech commit for quite some time until Clemson was able to work the flip and bring him back home to Tigertown. While it was nice to pull of the flip and keep McFadden home, you probably won’t see him much outside of 4 games this fall during his redshirt season (which by the the way, is an awesome rule).

McFadden, like Stewart mentioned above, has to do a lot of technique refinement and body reshaping like so many other South Carolina OL prospects. It’s, apparently, just a thing now. McFadden struggles to stay engaged in the running game at times due to popping up and having a narrow base, but does show some decent drive blocking ability. His pass pro footwork will need some work too as he sometimes takes false steps forward before getting into his kick slide. McFadden likely projects as a swing guard or RT. You will likely see him in mop up duties in up to 4 games this fall to take advantage of the new redshirt rule, unless disaster strikes and he is called upon for depth purposes.

Summary and Outlook

The 2018 offensive line returns some key pieces from 2017 and looks to be one of the better ones in recent memory, provided the depth can be serviceable and that the injury bug does not strike OT. If the injury bad juju can be kept away and allow for the young talent at OT to be slowly developed, then we could also be looking at a good line in 2019 too.

Be that as it may, we need to get our 2019 recruiting class up to five commits on the OL, as taking two in one cycle (such as 2018) is unacceptable. If our recruiting woes can get fixed, it’s not unreasonable to see our OL develop into a steady unit that can be relied on each fall.