CLEMSON — On Aug. 30, 2008, Clemson was a preseason top 10 football team when it entered the Georgia Dome to play Alabama. The Tigers were loaded with skill players and optimistic that this would be the long-awaited breakout season under coach Tommy Bowden.
But Clemson lacked depth and experience on the offensive line. That weakness was exposed by Alabama in the season opener, a 35-10 victory for the Crimson Tide. Bowden didn’t last the season as Clemson failed to meet lofty expectations in large part due to its suspect line.
On Sept. 1, Clemson will be back in the Georgia Dome to open the season against Auburn, another SEC opponent. The Tigers are inexperienced along the offensive line but loaded with offensive skill players. Is Clemson headed for a repeat of 2008?
The numbers suggest there should be concern for Clemson. Over the last three years, conference champions and BCS title game participants returned, on average, 68.2 combined starts along their offensive lines. In the power conferences alone, the league champions on average returned 73.6 combined starts on the offensive line.
Clemson returns 48 combined offensive line starts in 2012.
For comparison, Clemson won its first ACC title in 20 years last season when returning 118 combined starts along its offensive line, the third most experienced line in the country.
Experience is critical to offensive line play because of the complex blocking schemes, says Clemson center Dalton Freeman, who is just one of two returning starters on the line.
“It’s the communication,” Freeman said. “I think last year I took it for granted at times because I wouldn’t have to say anything. (Quarterback) Tajh (Boyd) would come up and say something and we all knew what it meant. Now Tajh is coming up and telling me, and I have to relay it sometimes to both the guard and tackle.”
The line will be challenged even more because offensive coordinator Chad Morris wants to operate at an even faster tempo than last season.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Freeman said of speeding things up on offense. “If no one is on the right page, we are not going to be very good.”
Morris expressed some concern with the young linemen early in fall camp, particularly with projected starting left guard Kalon Davis and at right tackle where projected starter. Gifford Timothy, underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
“You start seeing those guys that like to bite and those that don’t,” Morris said. “Some of them were biting real hard in shorts and shirts, but they are not biting right now, so we have to figure out what happened when the pads came on.”
Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell is optimistic, citing the raw ability of the group.
“Athletically, we could be better than the group last year. We will be better,” Caldwell said last month. “That’s not a slight on anyone, just facts.”
“I met with our strength staff and I love it when they have nothing but good things to say. If we got seven or eight guys we can go to battle with, it is going to be a lot of fun. I am anxious to see. We will know quickly when we get on the field.”