Clemson Tries to Straighten Its Line
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Should No. 20 Clemson go on this season to fulfill the immense promise engendered by its talented roster, should it eventually claim an Atlantic Coast Conference title and earn a Bowl Championship Series bid, junior center Thomas Austin will point to the final offensive series of his team's conference opener as the time when he and his linemates became a cohesive unit.
Up to that point in a Sept. 13 game against North Carolina State, Clemson's offensive line had been questioned, maligned and mocked as the weak link to an otherwise dynamic attack. The questions surrounded a line that consisted of four new starters. The malignance drew its spark from an ineffective running game that featured two of the top backs in the conference.
And the mockery rained down because, as much as Austin and his linemates hated to admit it, they were the weak link, not fully responsible for their team's early struggles but a considerable factor, to be sure.
"Five offensive linemen playing together is like a chorus line," Clemson associate head coach Brad Scott said. "Their steps all have to be the same."
Scott, who oversees the offensive line for the team that plays Maryland on Saturday, was quick to note that injuries have depleted a unit already lacking in experience. The injuries -- as well as the resulting fallout -- have ranged from the routine to the bizarre to the outright ridiculous.
Right guard Barry Humphries suffered a knee injury during a season-opening loss to Alabama and has not played since. As a result, Bobby Hutchinson, who started the season as a student assistant coach, was asked to suit up as a reserve. Left tackle Chris Hairston then injured his left knee during a motorized scooter accident the week before the North Carolina State game. Right tackle Cory Lambert moved to the left side to take Hairston's spot.
The end result against the Wolfpack was an offensive line that started three freshmen for the first time since 1943, when Coach Frank Howard lost his juniors and seniors to the military draft. So while running back C.J. Spiller said, "I wasn't really concerned at all; I knew our guys would be ready," Scott was more realistic -- and by extension, more nervous.
After the disheartening loss to Alabama, in which the Tigers recorded zero rushing yards, Clemson responded with a predictable thrashing of the Citadel, in which the offensive line paved the way for 252 rushing yards but still sought validation against a more worthy opponent.
It settled for North Carolina State, whose defense against the run ranked 91st in the nation (allowing 186.4 yards per game) in 2007. The Tigers compiled 166 rushing yards in a convincing win over the Wolfpack, though Coach Tommy Bowden lamented the team's lack of efficiency in short-yardage and goal-line situations -- problems that began up front.
Clemson ranked ninth in the ACC in rushing offense entering last weekend's matchup against South Carolina State. The Tigers tallied 189 rushing yards against South Carolina State -- a division I-AA squad -- and boosted its rushing offense ranking to seventh in the conference (151.8 yards per game).
"They're getting more at-bats, more repetitions, and their confidence is getting better," Scott said of Clemson's offensive line. "They're getting tougher, but anytime you're playing three freshmen, you're not where you need to be."
That made the Tigers' final offensive drive against North Carolina State all the more meaningful. For 13 plays, 96 yards and 8 minutes 7 seconds of the fourth quarter -- numbers Austin ticked off from memory in a telephone interview earlier this week -- all of the linemen's steps were the same. Ten of the 13 plays on that final drive were runs that totaled 59 yards, the machinelike procession concluding with a 12-yard touchdown dash by Spiller.
Clemson expected the Wolfpack to stack the box with four defensive linemen and four linebackers, but North Carolina State threw out a formation for which the Tigers had not prepared. The Wolfpack employed what Scott called a "Bear" front, in which defensive tackles lined up over the center and both guards while a defensive end shaded each offensive tackle.
Rather than crumble into a pile of confusion, Scott and Austin said they noticed the Tigers' young offensive linemen communicated and smoothly adjusted whenever the Wolfpack shifted into their "Bear" front, a sign of development previously unseen.
So even though they lost another offensive lineman to injury last week against South Carolina State -- left guard David Smith sprained his ankle and did not return -- and even though Scott said Hairston is "not in my plans to be in the starting lineup" Saturday against Maryland, Austin and his linemates will take solace in the progress they've made since the season began.
"We take pride in our work; we don't want to be the weak link on this team," Austin said. "We've worked real hard these past couple of weeks to make sure we're not the weak link."