The Clemson Tigers enter 2020 having to replace four starters from last year’s offensive line. Speaking at a fall practice, head coach Dabo Swinney said “We’re young there, we’re building the quality, dependable depth on that second group. … The one area on our team is just different from last year from an offensive line standpoint.” Duplicating last year’s success, which placed all five linemen on one of the three All-ACC teams, seems unlikely. Jackson Carman gives the Tigers a bedrock left tackle, but the offensive line is expected to take a step back this year.
Last year’s offense allowed a sack on only 3.5% of passing attempts, an absolutely elite rate. Some of the credit obviously goes to Trevor Lawrence, but the line gave Sunshine a clean pocket more often than not. In addition, they helped Etienne average an absurdly efficient 107 yards per game on just under 14 attempts. A step back from last year can still be quite good. It’s helpful that quite a few of this year’s starters played on last year’s backup offensive line. They’re going to benefit from having gotten game snaps together and hopefully be ahead of the curve given the experience lost. Still, we’re replacing four starters, and an injury along the offensive line could lead to things getting scary.
Left Tackle is going to be manned by the massive (6’5”, 335 lb.) Jackson Carman. Carman, a third-team All-ACC player last year, is by far Clemson’s most experienced offensive lineman. Hopefully he is able to step into a leadership role in his second year as a full time starter, and if he makes a leap this year he’s an NFL draft candidate as a junior.
Last year’s backup left tackle, Jordan McFadden, is going to be this year’s starting right tackle. While on the smaller size for a tackle (6’2”, 295 lbs.) McFadden is by most accounts the most athletic offensive lineman on the team. He’s going to have to prove that he understands the playbook, but the third year local sophomore could be the breakout performer for this unit in 2020.
Last year’s backup right tackle Blake Vinson might be able to provide depth this season, but has been hampered by knee injuries this off-season and might not be healthy yet. If he’s not ready to go, four true freshmen were listed at backup tackle in the preseason. Backup right tackle was going to John Williams or Paul Tchio, and backup left tackle was going to Mitchell Mayes or Walker Parks. While true freshman tackles contributing isn’t unheard of for the Tigers (Mitch Hyatt and the aforementioned Carman did it recently), finding a quality backup tackle from the candidates is going to be a concern.
Interior Offensive Line:
Graduate senior Cade Stewart is physically limited, but is experienced and knows how to make the calls along the offensive line. After playing a mix of guard and center earlier in his career, he’s settled in as the starting center for his last season as Clemson. In addition to Carman, he will be looked to for leadership on a green offensive line.
Fourth year junior Matt Bockhorst was the most played backup offensive lineman last year, and even had a spot start. He’s expected to step into the starting left guard position and, along with Carman, should give the Tigers a formidable pair of run blockers on that side of the ball.
Sophomore Will Putnam has drawn praise from the coaching staff for a quietly impressive fall camp. He has experience repping as a backup with many of the current starters.
The depth behind those two is scary thin, and it’s a stretch to call Putnam a known quantity with less than 200 snaps under his belt. Potential backups include a trio of redshirt freshmen in Mason Trotter at Center, Hunter Rayburn at Left Guard or Center, and Tayquon Johnson at Right Guard. True freshman Bryn Tucker is also getting consideration. Speaking of the backup offensive line Dabo said, “We’re just not there yet right now with that second group. I think by the time we play on the 12th (season-opener at Wake Forest), we’ll have nine or 10 guys ready to go. … Now, our first group may have to play more snaps until we get really confident in rolling in those other guys the way we like”
Coach Robbie Caldwell has long “cross-trained” his linemen at multiple positions, so any backup that shines (including the tackles) might get an opportunity to play “out of position” up and down the offensive line.
It goes without saying that given the lack of both experienced players and upperclassmen that this will be a season of growing pains. What remains to be seen is how big of a step back that is. If the Tigers offensive line goes from great to merely good, I’m pretty sure we can weather that. If the offensive line becomes an outright weakness, things get scarier. Fortunately the schedule gives the Tigers four games to get their offensive line together before going to face what could be an excellent Miami defense October 10th.