It’s safe to say the Clemson offensive line, which had to replace four of 2019’s starters, was an area of concern before the season. Describing the group in the fall, Dabo 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”.
Left tackle Jackson Carman, the lone returning starter from 2019, had just fifteen starts under his belt. The other four starters had a mere two starts sprinkled between them. This left 2020’s offensive line smaller, younger, and thinner than years past. Midway through the season, it became apparent that quality depth would not materialize. The starting offensive line took every snap against Boston College and 94% of the snaps against Syracuse.
Clemson remained a strong pass blocking team, allowing sacks on under 4% of total dropbacks. Some of that has to be attributed to Trevorf Lawrence’s ability to get the ball out quickly and adept movement in the pocket, but Carman and Jordan McFadden gave Clemson some of the best tackle play in the country. Sophomore guard Will Putnam played up to his recruiting rating as a pass blocker, and veteran guard Matt Bockhorst and center Cade Stewart mostly did their jobs in this department.
The losses on the offensive line showed up more in the running game. Despite returning star RB Travis Etienne, the Tigers fell from over 240 rushing yards per game (2nd in the ACC) to 153.8 rushing yards per game (11th in the ACC). This left Clemson one-dimensional against better fronts, especially in the Tigers' losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State. Both the Buckeyes and the Irish (the first time) were able to hold Clemson under fifty rushing yards. Eric Mac Lain, a former Clemson lineman and current analyst for the ACC Network, described the situation as “they probably got exposed a little bit, with four brand new starters... we looked small, to be honest”.
Clemson often was able to run the ball outside with the combination of strong tackle play and Etienne’s speed, but the lack of ability to run the ball up the middle left the Tigers unable to run the ball consistently against merely average defenses. According to PFF, Clemson had some of the worst (87th overall) interior run blocking in the country, and this matches the tape. The Tigers struggled to get push up front or blockers to the second level running inside zone, and gave up penetration or missed blockers at the point of attack on gap schemes like power and counter. As Putnam said after the Notre Dame game, “we weren’t able to move people as well as we wanted to in the run game.”
Clemson hasn’t successfully blocked Counter yet. 1T this time gets penetration and wraps around in backfield pic.twitter.com/jdARFGfSPu— Space Coyote (@SpaceCoyoteBDS) January 11, 2021
Without the running game to punish teams between the tackles, the Tigers lost a core component of their identity on offense. It’s possible to still move the ball while one-dimensional, but being unable to run the ball inside means relying on the talent of Lawrence and the receiving group to bail out the offense. It also leaves Clemson without one of their best ways to attack teams between the hashes, an area where they haven’t always been the best at throwing the ball despite boasting the best QB prospect in recent memory.
Longtime offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, the highest-paid position coach on the staff, will have plenty to work with coming into 2021. McFadden gives him a bookend tackle, Putnam could and should improve as a run blocker with a year in the weight room, and Bockhorst and Stewart could both return to provide a veteran presence. Caldwell is going to have to find another tackle, and I would hope that some of the younger linemen push the veterans for playing time on the interior offensive line, but there’s reason to expect improvement next year.