As the 2022 college football season nears, the excitement to see Clemson re-take the field is palpable. While we know the defense will be at least good — potentially elite — seeing the offense take the field in Atlanta against Georgia Tech may garner even more anticipation. Aside from bullying Wake Forest, last year’s offense was — let’s not sugarcoat this — bad. While the wide receivers and quarterback play were the prime culprits, the interior offensive line had its issues as well. It found its groove at times, most notably against Wake Forest, but it was not a consistent strength of the team. How does it look for 2022? Let’s dive in.
Mason Trotter was initially expected to be the starting center last season but injured his hand. That prompted Clemson to move Matt Bockhorst from guard to center. Unfortunately, that transition went poorly. The interior line was overwhelmed by Georgia and continued to struggle in the subsequent games. When Trotter returned, it allowed Bockhorst to move back to guard. That helped somewhat settle things, but only momentarily as Bockhorst was injured against Pittsburgh. They shuffled some more and Hunter Rayburn got snaps at center. Both Trotter and Rayburn had their struggles, but by the end of the year gave Clemson two reliable centers with upside for much more.
Unfortunately, the preview for this position cannot end there. While we’d hoped the two would be battling for the starting job, both will miss the 2022 season. Hunter Rayburn had nick/stinger issues that forced his retirement from football while Mason Trotter will miss the season for non-injury-related reasons that the team has not disclosed.
That leaves Clemson with only redshirt freshman Ryan Linthicum (7 career snaps) and redshirt sophomore Trent Howard (74 career snaps). They at least attempted to land a transfer to fill the void but were unable to do so. As a result, senior right guard Will Putnam will move to center and try to plug the hole. Putnam struggled at times last year but was lauded by Coach Swinney for playing through a significant foot injury and giving the Tigers some consistency up front. Will Putnam may be the biggest X-factor on the team. If he excels at his new position it will solidify the offensive line and the ripple effects will go a long way in fixing the offense.
With Putnam at center the Tigers will rely on a group of young players to step up and take the line play to the next level. The left guard position seems mostly settled with sophomore Marcus Tate as the starter. Tate played 627 snaps as a true freshman last season and frankly struggled at times, especially early in the season. The staff stuck with him though, which tells you a lot about their belief in him. He was a high four-star recruit out of Florida that clocks in at 328lbs so you have to love his upside. In one of the many post-practice interviews, Coach Swinney lauded his progress from last season saying he’s totally reshaped his body.
The right guard position is unsettled. Dietrick Pennington was a high-four star prospect out of Memphis and was poised to make an impact as a true freshman last season. Coach Swinney said that if Pennington hadn’t been hurt, he likely would have started. Unfortunately, after playing just four snaps, he tore his ACL. Now he is back, but given his minimal playing experience, it's hard to know what to expect. He weighed in at 360lbs (gain of 25lbs) at the start of camp, but coaches say he is lean for that weight. If he finds his footing quickly, he could make a big impact. While I would have initially expected him to take hold of the starting right guard position, early camp comments make it seem like an open competition.
Redshirt sophomore Bryn Tucker may be the best bet (TigerNet reported him taking some first-team snaps), but junior Mitchell Mayes is also in the running. In an interesting twist, they’re also experimenting with shifting Walker Parks from right tackle to right guard to get true freshman Blake Miller in the starting lineup.
While they want to get the “best five” on the field, I worry about having a right guard playing center, a right tackle playing right guard, and a true freshman at right tackle. The Tigers have options galore and Coach Swinney says the offensive line won the day in their last scrimmage, but I’d still expect it to take a few weeks before this group gels.
Jordan McFadden may quietly be the best player on Clemson’s offense. He is a redshirt senior with 1,971 career snaps. Clemson is very lucky he chose to return. Hopefully, he can boost himself into first-round consideration for the NFL draft. New O-Line Coach Thomas Austin will have at least one star in his first year on the job.
Opposite him at right tackle is Walker Parks. Parks wasn’t as flawless, but will only be a junior this season and still has room to grow. I expect a big season out of Parks. Behind McFadden and Parks is Tristan Leigh who was a five-star prospect that redshirted in his first year on campus last season. Additionally, the aforementioned Blake Miller, has made noise in camp for his “nasty streak” and will likely get some snaps.