The Clemson Tigers offensive front was much maligned last season and not without reason. This isn’t to say things were all bad, the Tigers were top 20 in all of the Football Outsiders pass blocking statistics. It’s just where and when things didn’t work, they didn’t work at all. A running game where Travis Etienne is getting the majority of the carries ranking only 66th in opportunity rate (roughly defined as “the percentage of carries in which the line does its job”) is unacceptable. The Tigers managed just eleventh in the ACC in rushing yardage despite the frequent presence of the first overall draft pick at quarterback and the greatest running back in school history in the backfield.
Against Ohio State in particular the running game imploded and was largely abandoned. This happened despite the Tigers being more willing to use the quarterback as a running threat in playoff games, something Ohio State remembers all too well. A smaller and less experienced Tigers front than 2019 (15 lbs. lighter on average) wasn’t able to open a hole on zone runs or find their assignments on gap runs.
The ball carriers weren’t able to make up for the lack of blocking, especially from the guards and centers, and the offense became one dimensional.
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
There’s reason to be hopeful that the offensive line will be more cohesive than the line we saw after last year’s hectic offseason, when the unit had to replace four starters. In contrast, this year has three returning starters. Graduate senior Matt Bockhorst is a solid veteran left guard, junior Jordan McFadden is getting some preseason awards hype after shifting from right to left tackle, and junior right guard Will Putnam will get an opportunity to prove he’s more than just a strong pass blocker. In addition, the offensive line will be the most athletic it’s been in some time.
The front is still going to be on the smaller side, with Putnam, McFadden, and presumptive starting RT Walker Parks listed under 300 lbs. But there is reason to think increased depth could lead to a physical group than last year, when the Tigers had five offensive linemen rack up 750+ snaps and none of the backups saw above 200 snaps. This stands in stark contrast to longtime offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell’s preference for “cross-training” his offensive linemen by playing them in multiple spots, as well as Dabo’s preference for getting a high number of players onto the field whenever possible.
Fortunately, there are some young talents in the wing waiting to push the starters and provide depth this year, including a pair of blue chip freshmen in Marcus Tate and Tristan Leigh. Whoever loses the battle for starting center between Hunter Rayburn and Mason Trotter is likely to be a good backup center, and sophomore guard/tackles Paul Tchio and Mitchell Mayers are recent four star recruits. The Tigers are willing to let freshmen linemen on the field, starting RT Walker Parks was named a freshman All-American by ESPN for his work as one of the first linemen off the bench last year.
If the Tigers can get back to having 6-7 linemen the coaching staff trust they can keep their linemen from having to rack up 75-90 snaps in key games, letting fresher legs improve the physicality of the group. Because of the coaching staff’s preference for training linemen at multiple positions it’s impossible to know exactly what the front will look like across the course of the year. It’s entirely possible that players will shift positions or from the bench to the starting lineup over the course of the year.
The offensive line is going to get tested early against Georgia, a game Bockhorst referred to as an “oil check.” Bockhorst, describing the challenge the Dawgs posed said, “Number one it’s their physicality, and number two the plurality of how they play… there’s a lot of different presentations of how they are going to do things and that will challenge us from a communications standpoint.”
A Georgia front with massive linemen (starting with the 340 lb. Jordan Davis at nose), athletic linebackers and a shifting scheme will challenge Clemson in ways only the best defenses can. The Tigers linemen explained, “A lot of teams might have a very complicated scheme but they really can’t execute. But to have the athletes to execute is what really makes them a potential threat.”
How the offensive line, one of the most maligned groups on the Clemson team in 2020, does against an elite front in the first week of 2021 will tell us a lot about the progress the Tigers have made (or not made) this off-season. Whether or not this group has returned to the standards Clemson has set for the offensive line will go a long way to determining this team’s ceiling.