CLEMSON -- On radio row at ACC media days last month, a talk show host pulled Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney aside to reveal a surprising discovery: Clemson's reserved, 6-7, 325-pound left tackle was the most articulate and engaging on-air guest among the players in attendance.

"I thought that was pretty cool," said Swinney, the Clemson coach, "one of my big nasties getting that kind of compliment. (Chris Hairston) is just a real sharp guy. He's soft-spoken, but he's a competitor."

Perhaps because of the position he plays, perhaps due to his unassuming demeanor, Hairston's value to Clemson is also surprising.

Clemson won 75 percent of games Hairston started last season, while suffering an 0-2 mark in games Hairston did not play or was limited in because of a knee injury.

Hairston did not play in the loss to Texas Christian, and played only nine snaps at Maryland, another loss.

That the Tigers were winless without their blindside protector last year

allows Hairston to make the argument he is one of Clemson's most important assets, and perhaps the most unheralded.

In those two losses without Hairston, Clemson was held to a combined 198 rushing yards and 3.1 yards per carry -- well below Clemson's season average of 4.8 yards per rush. Four of Clemson's 19 sacks allowed also occurred against TCU and Maryland.

The surprises don't end there. "He has tremendous feet," Swinney said. "You look at him and you don't think he can move the way he can move."

Hairston credits his foot quickness to the athletic versatility of his youth. He dreamed of playing on the wing in basketball and perhaps tight end in football -- not left tackle.

"I tried my hand at everything," Hairston said. "When you're playing, you have to be the quickest and fastest no matter how big you are."

His foot quickness combined with his size, long arms and football aptitude has Hairston ranked as an NFL prospect entering his season year, a projected fifth-round pick according to NFL Draftscout.com.

"Scouts love him," Swinney said.

Hairston has grown into a variety of roles.

He grew into his status as an NFL prospect and second-team All-ACC performer last season after going overlooked on the recruiting trail, selecting Clemson over Hampton and S.C. State.

This year, Hairston says he's becoming a leader to help fill the considerable void left by Thomas Austin.

"We're better at finishing plays," Hairston said, "better at being able to grind through a practice."

Hairston anchors an offensive line that has also grown from a question mark to a strength.

While last year there were questions related to performance now there is the burden of expectations -- especially for Hairston who is charged with protecting quarterback Kyle Parker, who is a soon-to-be millionaire after signing a Major League Baseball deal with the Colorado Rockies.

"I never want anyone to come off the blind side and get a free shot at him," Hairston said. "That's something I take pride in."

Parker and Swinney are glad he's there.

"He's improved tremendously since he's been here," Swinney said. "He's a very cerebral player, a high football IQ guy. When he gets a minus, it's usually physical; he rarely has a mental bust.

"He's kind of our Spiller up front."

Depth chart updated

Clemson released an updated depth chart Wednesday, featuring little change from the pre-game, two-deep roster.

Chandler Catanzaro remains the No. 1 kicker over incumbent Richard Jackson.

"He knocked 'em out," Swinney said. "Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson (Feb. 11, 1990 in Tokyo). He went home with the belt."

It was a tough day for Jackson, whose father was set to undergo heart surgery Wednesday evening.

The other notable changes were receivers Jaron Brown and Brandon Clear climbing into a tie atop the depth chart at outside receiver with Xavier Dye and Terrance Ashe. Swinney said the receiver race is still "too close to call" and that the reps will likely be shared into the season.

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com, check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow him on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).