O-Line More Important Than Clemson Fans Realize
I can vividly remember sitting in the Georgia Dome for the Chik-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in 2008 when the then No. 9 Clemson Tigers were getting ready to go up against the No. 24 Alabama Crimson Tide and thinking how would it be impossible for the Tide to slow down this explosive Clemson offense that had writers around the country raving. Clemson had James Davis and CJ Spiller returning in the backfield as well as Aaron Kelly, Tyler Grisham, and Jacoby Ford at the wide receiver positions. Finally, let’s not forget quarterback Cullen Harper who threw 27 touchdown passes the previous season and led the Tigers to their first nine-win season since 2003.
Unfortunately, Clemson fans quickly figured out that it was not to be the year they had expected because only one starter had returned on the offensive line and the inexperienced bodies were not capable of blocking Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain from Alabama. Clemson lost the game 34-10 to the Nick Saban-led Crimson Tide, and the season spiraled out of control as the team finished a disappointing 7-6. Head coach Tommy Bowden was fired mid-season, and Clemson fans wondered if their beloved Tigers would ever be nationally relevant again.
Enter Dabo Swinney. Dabo took over mid-season after Bowden was fired and was later named the permanent head coach of Clemson after the Tigers defeated their arch-rival South Carolina 31-14 in the season finale. As we fast-forward to 2013 the Tigers are again receiving a heavy dose of preseason hype as they are ranked No. 8 in both the Coaches and Associated Press preseason polls. Clemson has numerous skill position players returning, but the main reason why Clemson will have a year to remember is because of the experience and depth on the offensive line. Games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and Offensive Line Coach Robbie Caldwell feels like his unit can win a lot of football games because he has nine of his top 10 guys returning, including four starters. Though the Tigers do lose a four-year starter at center in Dalton Freeman, the coaching staff feels as if sophomore Ryan Norton can step in and perform at a high level this season. Along with Norton there is Tyler Shatley, David Beasley, Gifford Timothy, and the versatile Brandon Thomas projected to be starting on this unit. Last season the Tiger offense rushed for 191 yards per game with a 4.2 yards per carry average. An area that needs improvement is in the pass-blocking as the Tigers gave up 31 sacks a season ago, 15 of which were to SEC opponents, and we all know that the Tigers open up the season against a No. 5 ranked Georgia team who runs a 3-4 defense similar to what Alabama runs under Saban. Tajh Boyd and a wealth of wide receivers garner all the attention on the offensive side of the ball, but this Clemson team will go as far as the offensive line takes them. Offensive Coordinator Chad Morris wants to be able to run 90 plays per game this season and believes that the big uglies up front have the conditioning along with the experience to accomplish that goal. It was clear in the Chik Fil A Bowl last season that the Clemson offense was miles ahead of LSU in terms of conditioning as the Bayou Bengals’ defenders were cramping up on the final two possessions of the game. Clemson’s offense seemed to get stronger as the game wore on and that can be credited to the dedication to the art of conditioning by the Clemson coaching staff. A similar approach will be needed for the Tigers to have similar success against a revamped Georgia defense this Saturday night in Death Valley. The perfect mix of depth, experience and talent in the trenches should display their value as the best unit on this team.