CLEMSON – At times, Clemson’s offensive line has preferred to stay out of the headlines rather than create them.
Keeping blitzers off quarterback Tajh Boyd has never been a hallmark of offensive coordinator Chad Morris – in 2011 and 2012, the Tigers ranked tied for 75th in the country in tackles for loss per game.
This year, they’ve sank to 101st.
“I know what we have on this football team. I know what we’ve done good. I know what we’ve done bad,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Our offensive line has not been great, but none of us have been great. You’re not one of the best teams in the country offensively without guys doing some good things up front.
“Sometimes they get a little bit too much blame.”
Asked if he agrees with Swinney’s assessment, one of Clemson’s two senior blockers grinned and admitted he’s not exactly an impartial party.
“I can feel that sometimes, but I’m probably biased because I am on the offensive line,” right guard Tyler Shatley said. “A lot of times we’ll see stuff on film that we’ll get blamed for, but it might not be all our fault. Our group has to take that responsibility, and that’s just part of it. It’s fine with us; just makes us want to work harder.”
If the Tigers aren’t content with their current double dose of right tackles Gifford Timothy and Shaq Anthony, there is a third choice.
Isaiah Battle, the highly-touted left tackle who’s had on-field and academic struggles, has shown Swinney a different, more encouraging side to him the past few weeks.
“Just out there at practice today, I was bragging on him,” Swinney said Wednesday night. “That guy looks like he’s starting to figure it out. It looks like he’s getting ready.”
Swinney wouldn’t commit to giving Battle more playing time as soon as Saturday, but the prospective plan would be inserting the sophomore at left tackle and moving Brandon Thomas over to the right side.
Swinney was impassioned in defending starting tight end Stanton Seckinger on Tuesday, as well as his position group, which Swinney promises will be one of the best in the country in the coming years.
As for the other three tight ends, who have appeared in reserve roles, Swinney said, “(Jay Jay) McCullough has had the best couple of weeks of practice he’s had since he’s been at Clemson, and (Jordan) Leggett is very talented. (Sam Cooper) has been hurt, and he’s working back.”
Leggett was laden with expectations after a strong spring, but was set back by a knee injury in August. He made some brutally honest admissions Monday.
“Back in high school, I had a bigger role than I do now. I’m a lazy person, so they’re not able to trust me because of my practice habits. But when it comes to gametime, I know how to flip the switch and do what I have to do to help my team.”
Obviously, that raised some eyebrows on the coaching staff.
“We coach ‘em hard, and if they don’t respond, they don’t play,” Swinney said. “It’s really that simple. The greatest motivator we’ve got is that sideline. Doesn’t matter how talented they are; our best players are our hardest workers.”
The previous day, before Jordan Leggett met with the media, Morris was quite encouraging of the rookie, who caught his second career touchdown to end the first half at Maryland.
“You’re going to see Jordan more. You are,” Morris said. “Jordan is a freshman that’s kind of battled what a lot of freshmen go through. He’s a young man that will continue to mature both mentally and physically. We all know this is a game you have to bring it every day, even in practice. That’s our challenge with him.
“He’s unbelievably talented. … We all know he can catch the football and run like the wind.”
Opponents of Virginia (2-6, 0-4 ACC) have a combined 51-21 record so far, giving the Cavaliers the toughest cumulative schedule in Division I football (and Saturday’s home game vs. visiting Clemson will bump that mark to 58-22, plus the win or loss.)
“I know their record is not what they’d like it to be,” Swinney said, “but what’s impressive how hard they’re playing and how hard they’re competing, and they’re not far away. Very, very capable team.”