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2018 Football Season Review: Offensive Line

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Big Boy Season

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Compared to the much more lauded defensive line, the 2018 Clemson offensive line didn’t get a lot of attention for how dominant the unit was by seasons end. That’s not to say the offensive line didn’t have growing pains, especially in September, as the interior of the offensive line struggled in having to replace both starting guards, and the worlds largest 6 man in Maverick Morris.

Outside of quarterback play, offensive line play was the biggest difference between the 2017 and 2018 iteration of Alabama vs. Clemson. Ross and Lawrence were obviously amazing, but holding a Crimson Tide team that came into the game with 42 sacks to none on the night was just as impressive. That’s how we get to a place where the following sentence is true, and we just have to live with it because college football is a weird, variant game. In 2018 Clemson struggled with Boston College and Texas A&M’s pass rushes more than they did with Alabama’s.

Dabo is known for getting a lot of players onto the field and has been for some time. The offensive line is no exception.

Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell is known for his love of “cross-training” offensive linemen, a practice where offensive linemen learn and play multiple positions across the offensive line. This (and some blowouts) led to Clemson having seven offensive linemen start a game and a dozen that took at least fifty snaps in 2018. It’s also almost certainly behind some of the struggles in September, where inexperienced offensive linemen struggled with blitz recognition and pickup. By midseason the offensive line was rolling however, collectively earning offensive player of the game honors for their work against Louisville and Wake Forest.

Cross training lets Clemson keep its best offensive linemen on the field and helps the unit overcome injuries. When Justin Falcinelli was hurt, Gage Cervenka started at center and earned offensive player of the game against FSU. When Falcinelli returned, Cervenka slid over to guard in place of Sean Pollard, who split time between tackle and guard. An end result is Clemson has a lot of guys who can play either guard spot, maybe center, and right tackle.

For all of the rotation and cross training, Caldwell has tended to keep his center and left tackle on the field (Falcinelli had a Herculean 1229 snaps last year and 803 this year despite injury, Hyatt is leaving with the school record for snaps and starts), which makes sense when you look at the composition of the roster. Hyatt is the prototypical left tackle, as you don’t need to move him and there hasn’t really been a comparable backup option either. Centers, meanwhile are the leaders of the offensive line, tasked with making sure everyone is on the same page. If you’re going to be rotating guys, especially at guard, it makes a lot of sense to keep your two time All-ACC/All-ACC Academic center on the field as much as possible. Especially with multiple (mostly freshman) quarterbacks under center. While the offensive line took some time to come together, by the end of the season they were a formidable part of an offense that didn’t appear to have a weakness.

Despite concerns (probably overblown but not nothing) about his weight and ability to drive NFL linemen off the ball, Hyatt has been reliably excellent for Clemson. Getting him back because the NFL draft evaluators thought Hyatt was a third round pick was a big part of Clemson’s title this year. The four-year starter and two time All-American (once by consensus) hasn’t always gotten the attention he’s deserved, dude wasn’t even the most famous freshman lineman in his own class, but he’s been everything fans were hoping for from the former #2 OT recruit in the country. Hyatt still might be a third round pick this year. Good linemen fall in the NFL all the time and the left tackle position isn’t as valuable now that teams best pass rushers more often come from left end or the interior. Whichever team picks him up is going to get an excellent player.

John Simpson took a massive step forward in 2018. He has always been physically impressive, 330 pound men shouldn’t be able to pull as well as he is, and it can lead to massive holes. Until this year Simpson wasn’t up to speed on the mental aspect of the game. Over the course of his 300 snaps last year he’d alternate knockdowns with missed stunts and poor hand work. More potential than production. This year he started every game, and outside of a poor performance against the Aggies, filled the role admirably, earning a third team All-ACC selection.

Justin Falcinelli started every game at center except for FSU, which he missed due to injury. He continued his stellar work from last year and along with Hyatt was one of the bedrocks of the offensive line. The former three-star recruit blossomed into one of the best centers in the country his last two years as a Tiger. Falcinelli is large for a center at 305 lbs. and held his own in the running game admirably. His mobility was average but Falcinelli was able to compensate by knowing where to be. After graduating, Falcinelli used this year to get an MBA, a championship ring and a shot at the NFL draft. Pretty good.

Sean Pollard moved from right tackle to right guard this year and started seven games before being forced off the field against FSU due to a hand injury, getting replaced in the starting lineup the next week week by Cervenka. Pollard still managed to earn a second team All-ACC nod largely on the strength of his earlier play, and was an important piece of depth down the stretch. The move to guard suited Pollard, who was an excellent run blocking tackle but a bit slow when asked to block edge rushers. He’s still a road grader, but with the move inside Pollard is a plus athlete for his position. Pollard was also able to fill in for Anchrum at right tackle after Anchrum suffered an ankle injury. Consistency will be key for Pollard in 2019, as he’s obviously talented but prone to misfire.

Tremayne Anchrum was the Tigers other bookend, starting all fifteen games at right tackle. The former three star lineman is short (6’2”) and small for a P5 tackle, but makes up for it with long arms and athleticism. Although he had some growing pains like the rest of the line, Anchrum improved throughout the season. The junior has been one of many lesser touted linemen that Robbie Caldwell has been able to develop, and should be one of the starters at tackle next year.

Gage Cervenka took at right guard for Pollard in the second half of the season, as well as starting a game at center in place of Falcinelli. The former defensive tackle/wrestler is still working on his technique at offensive line but is incredibly strong and at 325 lbs. gave Clemson another road grader on the interior. Despite not starting until the FSU game, Cervenka was able to get onto the field for 500 snaps in 2018, and has a chance to start next year.

Sophomore Cade Stewart got his first start against Texas A&M and like the rest of the offensive line, he had a long night. Stewart managed to bounce back over the course of the season, serving as one of Clemson’s key pieces of depth along the offensive line.

True freshman Jackson Carman was a big get for Clemson, and his performance this year did not disappoint. This year was more about his development however, as he played only around 200 snaps, getting some mental seasoning and game reps. Carman, an elite offensive tackle prospect, will need to work to keep his weight down and master the mental side of the game, but has as good a chance as anyone at starting at left tackle next year.