There comes a point during the dog days of summer as we inch closer to the beginning of the season where many fans hang on any information that is not hypothetical semantics. By this point If…then statements are integral parts of conversations when trying to size up the upcoming fall. I came across an article written by Charleston Post and Courier reporter and Clemson beat writer Travis Sawchick on Clemson center Dalton Freeman that provided a confirmation and a glimmer of hope.
Given the attention we give to recruiting classes, starting quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, linebackers, corners, it is easy for the big uglies along the offensive line to get lost in the shuffle. This article is one I would imagine many people would likely to gloss over due to the mundane nature of offensive line play. Clemson’s line play during the past 13 seasons has often left something to be desired. I can recall early in Tommy Bowden‘s tenure when the line was under the tutelage of Ron West that we saw the offensive line play football the way it is meant to be played. Many Tiger fans will remember the 2006 season and the line that included Nathan Bennett, Dustin Fry and Roman Fry. Lets be frank with each other, the offensive line at Clemson has been soft as a baby’s bottom for quite some time now.
I have been screaming from the rafters about this for sometime. I assure you folks in Section E in Death Valley can vouch for my meltdowns along with people who have had the pleasure of being around me at road games. How many times have we watched Clemson offenses stumble in 3rd and short situations?
The most sickening moment that stands out in my mind was the 2004 game against Georgia Tech. It had been a typical Clemson-Georgia Tech slugfest that found the Tigers up by less than a touchdown with under five minutes to go. Tech had punted and all Clemson had to do was get one first down and game over. North Augusta product Reggie Meriwether gains 9 yards easy on first down. Everyone in the stadium was feeling good. 2nd and 1, this is all but a formality right? In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend”. 2nd and 1 out of a tight formation Clemson hands off up the middle and the running back is stuffed for a short gain. Ok, give the Tech defense credit they bowed up and made a stand but 3rd and less than 1, no problem. We get the first down, I am on my way back to Atlanta to gloat at church with my orange tie on. 3rd and 1, I am squirming in the stands like I usually do but still confident that I will be able to exhale and we will all go home happy. The quarterback hands off to the running back and he is stuffed for a short loss. It is now 4th down, deep in our own territory and we have to punt. In a matter of 2 plays the crowd went from near jubilation to having their rectal area puckered. Remember Clemson had 2nd and 1 with an opportunity to seal the game and could not convert.
My good friend @jeffbaltes knows what ensued on 4th down and Tech’s first play from scrimmage. On a side note he has a wonderful story about that game and the closing moments of that infamous game that you should ask him about.
It is moments like 2004 Georgia Tech that stick in the craw of Clemson fans. While the instances escape me. The frustration of not being able to sustain drives, being able to convert in key situations however does not.
There is a quote in Sawchick’s article where Dalton Freeman makes an important statement regarding new offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell. It is a quote that if you know the game of football or watched Clemson play over the last 15 years, you might set yourself on fire.
Freeman says in reference to Caldwell, “He’s a real old-school type of coach. Coach Scott was very detailed; he was into some of the more modern techniques as far as (angle blocking) and getting the right hand placement”. Freeman continues, “Coach Caldwell is more old-school: straight off the ball, hit them in the mouth and knock them out.”
This confirms the realness of the Twilight Zone that Clemson fans have been living through since the departure of Rich Rodriguez is that we have been SOFT along the offensive front. That softness hit a fever pitch when the offense was under the leadership of Rob Spence. We were the softest, most poorly coached zone blocking team in the nation. I still have nightmares of watching Clemson offensive linemen twisting one direction, while either catching a defender as he drives them back into the backfield or knifing through the gap created and making a play in the backfield.
You cannot play paddy cake on any level of football, especially FBS football. We have been subjected to rhetoric year after year from the head coach. I could give a presser right now, “This team needs to get tougher” a coach continues, “we are working on becoming a more physical football team.” With all due respect, you ain’t worried about being tough or physical when you are worried about taking the right steps and your hand placement. I do know enough about football that you have to play with good feet and excellent handwork but you know what I am talking about.
We are in an era of the spread offense, where so much attention is given to skill players but there is a timeless aspect of the game that has not changed and will never change and that is the team who is able to control the line of scrimmage is going to win the football game. It does not matter what type of offense you run, it all starts upfront, you can have the perfect play called but if your line cannot hold up, you never have a chance.
Go back to the national title game last year. All the attention was given to the Oregon offense but when it came to game time Auburn won the ball game with their play along both lines. Go back and watch Clemson games from the past few years, when they were successful they were winning the battle up front more often than not.
Folks football is the simplest game on the planet. You have to have a bunch of mean SOBs along your offensive line who fire off the football and change the line of scrimmage in the offense’s favor. Find me a team who won a championship with suspect line play. Crickets….Crickets….Crickets. You will not find one.
I am cautiously optimistic that under Coach Caldwell’s tutelage that we will see the more physical line play that we have been longing for. This is a team with a lot of experience returning along the offensive line, they have been through the ups and downs, they seem to have taken to this new offense. Rhetorically they have bought into Coach Caldwell’s way of doing things now it is time to do it against someone in a different jersey.
We can talk all we want about the new scheme being implemented by Coach Morris but much of the success and failure we will have early on will come from the play of the offensive line and their ability to create holes for our running backs and keep Tajh Boyd upright. It is just that simple. I will be focusing on our line play as we tee things up on Saturday. Remember when Andre Ellington breaks a long run or Dwayne Allen hauls in a long pass, it all started with the big uglies up front.