Line change: Clemson OL transforms into powerful, deep unit

Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain (78) leads game captains at midfield for the coin toss before hosting the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Memorial Stadium in Clemson Saturday, November 21, 2015. ¬ GWINN DAVIS / FOR THE POST AND COURIER ¬

CLEMSON – Think of Clemson’s resurgent offensive line like a basketball lineup.

You’ve got your first five, who spend the most time playing with one another and clock in with the most minutes. Then the reserves come in and out, one by one, to give the starters a rest from time to time while not interrupting the flow of the squad’s performance. That was Tigers OL coach Robbie Caldwell’s edict, beginning with complete line changes early on in 2015.

“You look back at (the) Notre Dame (game,) we rotated guys in the third series, and people were like, ‘whoa, what are they doing?’ But they can handle it,” senior left guard Eric Mac Lain said. “If you have a guy busting his tail every night and day, and he doesn’t get any playing time, why would you practice hard? It’s great we were able to reward them.”

Remember, those are all-conference linemen getting told to take a seat while the freshmen can get a few minutes of action. Occupying five of the 15 all-ACC spots, Clemson landed its entire offensive line somewhere along the three all-league teams for the first time in school history.

Before we get to those starters, let’s talk about the backups. Third-year sophomore Maverick Morris has actually become a starter the past three weeks in place of injured right guard Tyrone Crowder, and Morris has logged 390 snaps. True freshman Jake Fruhmorgen, with one start and nine games played, has 219 snaps. Taylor Hearn and Justin Falcinelli are at 160 and 119 snaps, respectively, and the offensive lineman ranking 10th in total snaps (96)? That would be senior center Ryan Norton, who’s played a ton of football but missed seven games with a knee injury before returning as a willing backup.

Point is, they’ve played, and they’ve played some meaningful drives. And while most basketball teams “shorten the bench” in the playoffs, lending more playing time to the starters because rest time is not as critical, that’s not the plan for Clemson during the ACC Championship or any bowl or playoff games.

“They’re very competent. That’s why they’re playing,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They deserve to play. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in all those guys. I think we’re going to be better next year on the offensive line.”

That’s some lofty language, seeing as Clemson is losing two senior starters plus Norton. But Mac Lain, who has played an OL-high 825 snaps (the team’s second-largest workload, behind quarterback Deshaun Watson), doesn’t mind the rest.

“They’ve earned it, they deserve it, and they’ve proven they can play,” Mac Lain said. “If those guys were somewhere else, maybe they’d be starters. They’ve stepped up every week and performed to the ability to where they deserve more.”

Even when the coaches will pick and choose their spots to sub in Falcinelli here or Hearn there, it hasn’t sacrificed performance or rhythm. Nationally, Clemson is top-25 in both rushing offense and passing offense, and top-20 in allowing the fewest sacks and tackles for loss.

“That just shows how great a job they’ve been doing that a lot of people don’t notice,” running back Wayne Gallman said. “I appreciate the offensive line for their practice habits, because it all comes from practice.”

That helped Mac Lain become the Tigers’ first all-ACC first-team offensive lineman since Brandon Thomas and Dalton Freeman in 2012. That helped Crowder, senior right tackle Joe Gore and precocious true freshman Mitch Hyatt land third-team nods.

And perhaps the catalyst: junior center Jay Guillermo, who has played 819 snaps and replaced Norton in game three, earned three ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors and second-team all-ACC honors, adding stability to the position.

During a team meeting earlier this week following the release of the all-ACC squads, the Tigers devoted a special round of applause for the offensive line’s clean sweep of five honorees.

“Those guys have come a long way. It’s exciting to see all five of them listed all-ACC,” junior tight end Jordan Leggett said. “I’m extremely proud of them, and those guys deserve every bit of praise they’re getting.”

Guillermo missed the spring dealing with depression and physical ailments. Mac Lain was a converted tight end who played 39 games entering 2015 but only started once before Sept. 5. Gore was a converted defensive lineman who was the de facto 2014 starter due to a slew of offensive tackle departures, but had his appendix removed suddenly at midseason and wasn’t quite the same the rest of 2014. Crowder waited his turn a couple years, while Hyatt, well, he was the starter from Day 1 after Isaiah Battle entered the NFL supplemental draft in May.

Five offensive linemen. Five stories.

“We all have different roads of getting where we are, but at the end of the day, we all ended up on top,” Mac Lain said. “That’s the most important thing, and it’s pretty cool.

“The cohesiveness of this group is like no other I’ve been a part of. It’s phenomenal to get rewarded for all our efforts at the end of the year, a group of guys no one gave credit to at the beginning.”