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2023 Position Review: Offensive Line

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This classic opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens provides a fitting lens to view the 2023 season for the Clemson offensive line.

The offensive line showed glimpses of domination this year, notably during their performance against Notre Dame when they paved the way for Phil Mafah to accumulate 186 rushing yards. But they also put us through some low moments—getting out-muscled by an inferior Wake Forest front and giving up 8 sacks to Kentucky in the bowl game, to name a few.

This year, the inexplicable inconsistency of the offensive line proved frustrating for the Tiger fan, and the line’s poor performance ultimately resulted in a coaching change. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The Season

The preseason for the offensive line began in typical Clemson fashion, with Coach Swinney and others creating hype around the unit—something that has become a bit of a reoccurring theme each offseason. This year, however, there was some reason to speculate that we would see one of the better lines in recent memory.

The Tigers were returning 4/5ths of a starting offensive line from the 2022 season. Starting right tackle Blake Miller had just come off a historic season starting as a true freshman. Seniors Walker Parks and Will Putnam were setting their sights on leadership roles within the offense. There were mumblings of Tristan Leigh beginning to live up to his 5-star billing. The excitement for this line was mounting, and it was soon time to see them in action.

The season opener, as we all reluctantly remember, began with a catastrophic loss to Duke. There was plenty of blame to go around after that game; however, the offensive line came away relatively unscathed. The reason being, they were adapting to a new, but not completely different, scheme under new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, and the Tigers were able to rush for 213 yards in the loss.

Following the loss in week 1, the success on the ground continued for another week against inferior Charleston Southern, but the positive momentum began to sputter when starting right guard Walker Parks went out with what would be a season-ending injury.

With the loss of Parks, the line and the entire offense were dealt a blow that severely impacted the trajectory of the season. Parks played aggressively, and Coach Swinney recognized Parks as a vocal leader. For a relatively young offense to lose such a leader proved costly for the whole team.

The loss of Parks is highlighted in the yards/rush statistic. In the first two games, the Tigers averaged 5.93 yds/rush. In the remaining 11 games of the season, they only managed to achieve a yds/rush above 5 once and obtained a collective 3.92 yds/rush.

Mitchell Mayes was used as a replacement for Parks, but his performances were so underwhelming that auxiliary senior Trent Howard stepped in. True freshmen Harris Sewell and Collin Sadler were plugged in as well to try and boost the play of the line, and both did help find some rhythm in the Wake Forest game.

The low points of the season came in the losses to Miami and NC State. In the Miami game, the Tigers gave up 5 sacks and were only able to gain 34 yards on the ground for 0.91 yds/rush. Some weaknesses were exposed in pass blocking, with sophomore Blake Miller getting beat a couple of times by the aggressive Miami front. The NC State game was no different, with the Wolfpack pressuring the QB all game on big downs.

One of the problems that ailed the offensive line this season in the run game was the execution of the GT counter—a staple of the Garret Riley offense.

The GT counter utilizes a pulling guard and tackle from one side of the center to act as lead blockers on a run play. The play begins by faking a run play in the opposite direction of the pulling lineman and then the running back follows his lead blockers. It can be effective but relies on an agile line and good timing to be executed properly.

The Tiger offensive line struggled with this play and made it difficult to build momentum on the ground, often leading to stalled drives, especially early in games. Either the pulling lineman were disrupted by the defensive line and the play was over from the start, or the lineman were too slow on the pull and the running back had no space to run. The line’s ability to execute this play was so nonexistent that it was all but stricken from the playbook.

With the GT counter malfunctions, the Tigers needed a boost from elsewhere to be successful in the ground game. This leads us to the Notre Dame game.

Prior to Notre Dame’s visiting Death Valley, the Tigers were on a two-game skid, and the offensive line was now down two starters; left guard Marcus Tate joined Parks following injuries in practice. This game was trending a potential disaster for the line, considering Notre Dame had limited offenses on the ground all season.

Surprise! In what was arguably the most shocking performance of the season for any position group, the Tiger O-line, down two starters and starting a true freshman, dominated the Notre Dame defensive front and facilitated 176 yards on the ground. The running game approach shifted in this game, with the play-callers selecting a simpler scheme that went away from the GT counter. The line was able to play more aggressively by hitting the guy in front of them and moving to the next level. The result was a master class in offensive line play and one for the win column.

The Tigers capitalized on the momentum from the Notre Dame game and kept the scheme change for the rest of the regular season. In the following 3 games, the Tigers rushed for an average of 242 yds/game and 5.05 yds/carry.

The success found in the second half of the season proved that this line could be aggressive and dynamic—much of what Coach Swinney was referring to at the beginning of the season. The frustration lies in its taking nine games to figure it out.

The bowl game against Kentucky was a microcosm of the Tigers’ season. The line allowed a shocking 8 sacks and managed only 103 yards in the run game on 39 carries (2.64 yds/carry) in their final game of the 2023 season.

The Statistics

Clemson Offensive Line 2023 Statistics

Stat Value National Rank (133 Total)
Stat Value National Rank (133 Total)
Yards/Carry 4.32 65
Line Yds/Carry 3.25 42
Power Success Rate 78.2% 27
Stuff Rate 13.6% 18
Sack Rate 5.9% 61

When looking at some of the statistics used to evaluate offensive line play, the Tigers ranked relatively well among their CFB peers this season. For all major offensive line metrics, they were in the top half of CFB. They managed to break the top 20 in stuff rate, meaning they were only stuffed (loss of yards or negligible gain) on 13.6% of plays.

The Tigers relied on the run game heavily in the second half of the season, with the passing game fizzling as the season progressed. The talent of the two backs, Shipley and Mafah, shoehorned the Tigers to being a run first team. The increased focus on running the ball likely shifted the metrics as the Tigers became more capable in the ground game.

Clemson Offensive Line Comparison

Year 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2023
Year 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2023
Yds/Carry 5.0 4.3 4.6 6.5 6.0 4.5 4.3
Line Yds/ Carry 3.20 3.08 3.17 3.54 3.65 2.99 3.25
Power Success Rate 75.7% 69.0% 73.6% 78.8% 83.3% 71.1% 78.2%
Stuff Rate 16.1% 18.0% 16.5% 13.4% 14.3% 16.6% 13.6%
Sack Rate 3.2% 3.1% 6.6% 3.3% 3.6% 3.9% 5.9%
Rank 3 7 4 1 2 6 5

The goal for every Tiger team is the to reach the CFB playoffs. So, I compared O-line metrics of the 2023 team to every team that reached the playoffs from 2015 to 2020 to measure their performance.

The results show that the 2023 team was the fifth-best line based on the metrics between all seven seasons. The 2018 and 2019 lines are rated the best, but they were supported by arguably the best running back in ACC history, Travis Etienne.

One glaring statistic for the 2023 offensive line is the sack rate. At 5.9% of plays ending in a sack, the offensive line ranked significantly worse than other Clemson O-lines, especially ones that competed for national championships.

The yards-per-rush statistics are, in general, in the middle to low rank as well and, considering the talented running backs at Clemson’s disposal, could be considered a disappointment.

I believe the general term to describe the Tigers 2023 season would be disappointment, part of the reason that offensive line coach Thomas Austin was let go by Coach Swinney following the bowl game.

Part of the reason for the dismissal can be attributed to failure to bring in some crucial targets in recruiting, but you would have to think on field execution plays a significant role as well.

The Tigers will move into 2024 with former Ole Miss head coach and Georgia offensive line coach Matt Luke’s leading the offensive line. Luke is a bona fide coach with impressive recruiting credentials as well as a perfect culture fit for Dabo. The resume and experience of Luke will attract the big-name recruits, as well as demand a higher level of play from his players.

If you’ve read A Tale of Two Cities, you know that despite the chaos and pain of the past, the book ends with hope for the future.

As for the Clemson offensive line, the recent turbulence of losses, injuries, and coaching changes ultimately offer a foundation for growth and progress. The hope in 2024 will be that this line can overcome its struggles and be the genesis of a new type of Clemson offensive line—the likes of which we have not seen for some time.