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2023 Clemson Football Season Preview: Offensive Line

Saving the best for last

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Capital One Orange Bowl Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a long off-season hasn’t it? Hundred year old conferences are dying, FSU may do something extremely funny in their long-running and brazen attempt to get out of contractual obligations to the ACC, and we here at Clemson sort of support them in that. Barring visionary leadership from the NCAA, something that the NCAA does not exist to provide, the Supreme Court or Congress seems set to take a crack at setting the future shape of the sport. So that’ll be fun. They’re doing great lately. With things changing faster than ever, we here at STS are going to return to who we are at a core level, a website that likes writing about the big dudes. Let’s embrace the big boy lifestyle and get into it. Get your sweat towels on.

Offensive line has long been a weakness in Clemson’s offense. It’s no secret the unit has lagged behind other national championship caliber programs’ offensive lines. You can prove it with who the NFL has drafted. Last year’s offensive line was faced with working under a new coordinator in Brandon Streeter, and a new position coach after longtime offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell retired from the position to a more administrative role.

In Caldwell’s place, Thomas Austin joined former teammates CJ Spiller (running backs) and Tyler Grisham (wide receivers) as a position coach last year. Dabo may have brought in an outside coordinator, but the rest of this offensive staff is very much familiar. But for coordinator Garrett Riley (Texas Tech) and Kyle Richardson (n/a) every offensive coach for the Tigers played for the program.

The coaching change did not lead to better results. It also didn’t lead to a cratering. The offense struggled to produce explosive plays, but the efficiency stats and the red zone stats remained solid. I am personally inclined to blame skill players (perimeter blocking has fallen off a cliff since Scott coached receivers) and scheme for the issues with explosive plays. Is that a pro-linemen bias? Absolutely, and you should develop one.

Clemson favors ‘cross-training’ the offensive line, in theory this results in the ability to always have your five best players on the field. In reality, it has often translated into playing four guys who are all sort of just guards, and one undersized but very athletic left tackle. Think Mitch Hyatt, Jordan McFadden, we have a type.

Clemson returns 4/5ths of last year’s starting offensive line, losing left tackle (and the best player on the line) Jordan McFadden to the Chargers. At center, Will Putnam led the Tigers linemen with over 1,000 reps, and handled the transition from guard as well as can be hoped for. It’s a small thing until you try to do it, but snapping a ball reliably and blocking defensive linemen is hard, man. The act of snapping makes you slower off the line, and so much of line play is won within the first three steps.

At guard, the Tigers return Marcus Tate and Walker Parks. Tate has improved by leaps and bounds since forced into action as a freshman in 2020. The offensive line could not perform against the Tennessee front without him. Parks struggled after shifting from right tackle to right guard, with freshman Blake Miller taking his place at right tackle. Parks was unable to get consistent push inside and may need to play tackle, or at least get more time in the weight room.

Miller performed well, for a freshman, at a position with a steep learning curve. Miller had issues with false starts early in the season but came on strong in the second half, particularly as a run blocker. At left tackle the talk out of camp is that five-star prospect Tristan Leigh has locked the job down. This has the effect of keeping Parks at guard. We will know whether that is bluster (find me a year Dabo isn’t praising his offensive line in the spring/summer) or not soon. There’s always potential for the offensive line to be shuffled around as the season goes on.

In other words, this line is not far from the Clemson offensive line blueprint. Nor is what Riley does up front revolutionarily different from what Streeter did. The accoutrements will change, but last year’s front ran counter, this year’s front is running counter. It’s likely that the way the schemes are taught is subtly different, but football has been around for generations and there’s still only like two dozen running plays. The overlap is inevitable. Riley loves to get linemen blocking downfield on screens, and all air raid guys favor wider splits, so the offensive line will get a chance to showcase more athleticism. But much of the hope for different outcomes is simply experience, both for the returning linemen and for Austin, and a different scheme to be offensive linemen within. The front is not particularly different from last year, just more seasoned, and hopefully operating in a different context.