Clemson offensive line allays fears to date but has more tests to pass
CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney did not say it then. To inspire confidence, he could not say it then.
In the spring and summer when asked about his offensive line, which returned only two starters, Swinney said the group would be fine. In private, the Clemson coach had greater doubts.
“I was pretty worried,” said Swinney when reflecting this week.
“I was concerned about our offensive line.”
That No. 11 Clemson (9-1, 6-1 ACC) is on a program record scoring pace — averaging 42.9 points per game — entering today’s ACC finale against the Wolfpack (6-4, 3-3) is a testament to an offensive line that has exceeded preseason expectations, allowing Clemson’s elite skill players to flourish.
It is a line that has passed test after test but faces two of its remaining challenges against the Wolfpack, which lead the ACC with 30 sacks, and South Carolina’s talented front on Nov. 24.
Clemson has allowed only 20 sacks through 10 games, a surprise to even Swinney.
Clemson entered the year graduating left tackle Phillip Price, who was solid in pass protection all last season.
To illustrate his value, Price missed the N.C. State game due to a knee injury last fall and was unable to play more than a few snaps against South Carolina the following week.
Clemson lost both games and allowed 11 combined sacks.
Clemson allowed just 22 sacks in the 12 games Price fully participated in.
Said Swinney last November: “sacks are a big part of this slide.”
The Tigers also graduated right tackle Landon Walker — who has played more snaps than any player in program history — and right guard Antoine McClain.
Only center Dalton Freeman and left guard Brandon Thomas returned as starters for the Tigers.
“We were a big question mark and rightfully so,” Freeman said. “But it’s not like we hadn’t been recruiting guys and it’s not like we hadn’t been preparing them.”
Still, Clemson right guard Tyler Shatley was converting from defensive tackle.
Gifford Timothy and David Beasley had never started a game.
“Holy cow,” Swinney recalled thinking to reporters this week, “(I thought) we’ve got a long way to go.”
Swinney became more hopeful after the line paved the way for 320 rushing yards in the season opener against Auburn.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris helped the unit by implementing the pistol formation which allowed for more double-team and combination blocks.
“When we came out of the Auburn game we were thinking, ‘OK … we’ve got a chance here,’ ’’ Swinney said.
There are still two more tests to pass.
N.C. State and South Carolina have two of the most talented defensive fronts Clemson will play this season.
Only Florida State’s line, which produced two sacks versus Clemson, compares favorably.
“They’re the best front we’ve seen since Florida State,” Freeman said of N.C. State.
Three different N.C. State players have at least 3.5 sacks this season.
It’s a defensive front that averages 290 pounds per player.
It will offer a test.
“This has been a really good year from an offensive line standpoint,” Swinney said.
“We call those guys the union. And we’ve haven’t always been that.”