There is just no getting around the fact that the Clemson offensive line didn’t quite live up to expectations last season.
The Tigers were replacing four starters in the group, so some growing pains were to be expected. However, through it all, head coach Dabo Swinney raved about his group throughout all of fall camp.
Once the season rolled around, some of the weaknesses were glaring. In particular the run blocking on the interior of the line.
Rushing numbers were down across the board. Travis Etienne averaged about two yards per carry less last season than he did in 2019. Youth and inexperience were an issue and contributed to a lack of depth.
Heading into 2020, the Tigers know they need to be better up front. Clemson only needs to replace two starters from last years group, but one of those is center Cade Stewart. It is the most important position on the offensive line.
Many have believed true freshman Ryan Linthicum could win that job after coming to Clemson as the number one center in the country coming out of high school. However, Swinney said last week that those expectations might be unrealistic seeing as there is so much that goes into mastering that position.
“Ryan’s got a ways to go,” Swinney said. “I mean he’s gonna be a really talented player. Just got here, he’s got four football practices at Clemson under his belt. Lot to learn, game’s fast. He’s gonna be a good player but I don’t think that’s very realistic after four practices for anybody in that offensive line. It takes a lot of work.”
By all accounts, Mason Trotter and Hunter Rayburn are the players battling it out for the starting job. Swinney said that he has been pleased with what he’s seen so far out of both guys and that Matt Bockhorst, who started at left guard last season, could slide over and play center if the need arises.
“Rayburn, you know he’s one of those guys that I was talking about earlier,” Swinney said. “He’s a redshirt sophomore, he’s going into his third year and it’s just, you can just see a light has gone off. You know, it’s amazing what the weight room and just some time will do for some of these guys. That is a hard position and Rayburn has really come on.”
“Trotter, you know, we feel good about him and what he can do,” Swinney said. “Bockhorst gives us a lot of flexibility, because Bock could easily be our starter. He can easily move to center if we felt like that was the best move for the best five. So he can do it. Trent Howard is the guy that really does a good job snapping, really understands the game. So we got several guys that are working in there along with Ryan.”
The way Clemson cross trains their offensive linemen has been well documented over the years. Heading into next season, Swinney has said the goal is to get the best five guys on the field.
So far he is optimistic. The young guys who had their share of struggles last season are now more experienced and the Clemson head coach likes what he has seen up to this point in the spring.
“Those guys all cross train,” Swinney said. “Encouraged by what I’m seeing. Some of these young guys, those young freshmen, that the game was a little too fast for last year there, got a little better demeanor, better look in their eyes right now. And again, that’s what a year’s experience will do for you.”