CLEMSON -- C.J. Spiller, Michael Palmer and Jacoby Ford have left the West Zone, owners of 34 of Clemson's 54 touchdowns last season. Despite those losses, historical trends hint Clemson should be in position to defend its Atlantic Division title thanks to a veteran offensive line.
Since 1972, when Clemson returns four or more starting offensive linemen, as the Tigers do this fall, Clemson has averaged nine wins per season.
A Wall Street Journal study last year concluded offensive line experience predicts success. The analysis noted two of 2008's biggest surprises, Utah and Mississippi, returned more than 80 starts along the offensive line, while two preseason top-10 teams that faltered -- Clemson and Georgia -- returned fewer than 40 starts.
The research validates conventional thought: experience is paramount along the offensive front where five players operate in unison. Fueled by a veteran offensive line this fall, Clemson hopes to surprise in opposite fashion to the 2008 team -- strong at skill positions but weak along the offensive front -- that disappointed.
"I think the biggest factor is experience," Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. "I think they are a talented group. I'm pleased with the lack of complacency from that group.
"What I've seen is a bunch of guys that are hungry to make a statement about who they are and what they are about."
The Tigers return four starters, six linemen who made starts last season, and 87 career starts along the front.
Clemson has 16 more career starts of experience up front than last season when the Tigers improved their rush average from 3.4 yards per attempt in 2008 to 4.8, while lowering their sack totals from 34 in 2008 to 19.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said six of those sacks occurred with backup quarterback Willy Korn in the game.
The last time Clemson enjoyed this much experience returning to the offensive line was in 2006, when Clemson returned five starters and averaged a program-record 5.7 yards per rush.
The Tigers averaged 5.6 yards per rush during the final nine games of the season last fall, as the team shifted its offensive philosophy following a bye week after a 2-3 start.
There were more two tight-end sets, more Chad Diehl, the battering ram of a fullback.
This year there is more experience.
The only significant losses are Thomas Austin and reserve Wilson Norris, who tore his ACL in the spring.
Left tackle Chris Hairston returns with 22 career starts, and says the line is "miles ahead" of where it was a t this point last summer. Antoine McClain returns at right guard after starting all 14 contests last fall. Landon Walker has 22 career starts, returning to right tackle and promising center Dalton Freeman started the final nine games as a freshman last year.
"Last year, I was just trying to learn the offense and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of that," Freeman said.
"This summer I've worked on my footwork, my quickness."
Freeman notes the Tigers actually bring back six players with starting experience, though depth beyond the first six is a question mark.
"We bring back a guy like Mason Cloy who was starting before he got hurt, we really have five returning starters," Freeman said. "We have a lot of experience, and experience is something you can't really replace."
--Jarvis jenkins did not practice Saturday after suffering a mild concussion Friday. He is expected to return to practice Monday.