SENECA — As an offensive lineman, Robbie Caldwell never shied away from contact, and he has a good reason why.
“I hated running,” the jovial veteran offensive line coach said last week. “I’d much rather get in there and hit.”
As Caldwell begins his second year as Clemson’s offensive line coach, he’s seeing a few versions of himself in his command.
“This whole group… I love the things coach (Dabo) Swinney does with three-on-three drills at the beginning of practice, and none of them have backed away,” he said last week at Swinney’s media golf outing. “And usually, all freshmen are a little bit skeptical about getting in there with the older guys. This group, they’ve accepted the challenge. They’ll hit you.”
Caldwell is seeking toughness from a rebuilt offensive line that will serve as a key to Clemson’s 2012 success. Clemson brings back only two starters from a 2011 group which was mercurial and struggled with grit– senior center Dalton Freeman and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas.
Caldwell wants the group to be, in his words, “nasty.”
“ It doesn’t mean breaking the rules, we never talk about that,” he said. “But it means blocking your man to the whistle blows. Takes great effort, great attitude, something we’re always learning. The term I’ve used for years and years is ‘Get your man.’ You get your man, everyone gets their man, we’re going to be in great shape.”
Athletically, Caldwell says this group “could be better than the group last year, and we will be better – that’s not a slight, that’s a fact.”
He points to freshman tackles Joe Gore and Isaiah Battle as key reasons why, nothing their impressive abilities on the basketball court. The key is turning that athleticism into toughness.
“They can do some things,” he said. “That doesn’t make you a football player, particularly on the offensive line, because there’s mouth-to-mouth contact, all the time. And I can make you run, I can make you lift weights, but I can’t make you enjoy contact. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Molding that culture is especially key this season, considering the overall youth of Clemson’s offensive line. Freeman is the only senior, and Thomas and converted defensive tackle Tyler Shatley are the only juniors.
“It’s important, doing some of those things this year because they’re all green,” Caldwell said. “You have all seniors, you worry about contact, err towards caution, not getting them hurt, as opposed to roughing them up. I’ve been down that road, short numbers. I’ve only had a few good players sometimes, and if you don’t have contact, you don’t get them ready to play. There’s the old saying, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’
“The first goal is developing toughness. Each year, no matter if you’ve been there or not, you’ve got to start over and you’ve got to help that new guy beside you. So we the need older ones to set an example.”
Shatley gave a natural toughness infusion when he moved across the line of scrimmage; Caldwell joked that it took “about 24 hours” for him to decide to keep him permanently. “In all my 30 years as a line coach,” Caldwell said, “I’ve never had someone fit so perfectly right off the bat.”
“Toughness is a thing Tyler Shatley brought over naturally,” he said. “He’s been playing on the defensive line, he’s used to contact, he’s used to taking on the double team. Now by George, he wants to give them some of it. He made everyone tougher, even our experienced guys, right off the bat.
It’s a mindset for him.”
He was an immediate fit, Caldwell said.
“He was a little bit worried about it when he first came over but it didn’t take him long to put him at ease,” Caldwell said of Shatley. “He’s a very sharp young man. Academics and football don’t always go hand in hand but in his case it did, he’s studying to be an engineer, he understands leverage, angles, concepts. It made sense for him. He made less mistakes in a first-time player learning the system than I’ve ever had in 30-some years. That tells you how hungry he was, how important it was for him to catch it. He wants to earn his way.”
That’s exactly what this offensive line will have to do. Caldwell jokes that the line is a football team’s “whipping boy,” but he thinks this group can hand out some whippings of its own.
“I’m excited about the group,” he said. “I’ve always been an underdog. I like that, scratching and clawing, working my way back to the top.”