Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had more than a few questions about his offensive line back in the spring.
Eight months later, the "union" has things under control.
The guys up front, dubbed the "union" by offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, have been a pleasant surprise for the 11th-ranked Tigers (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).
The line is led by fifth-year center Dalton Freeman and is kept the Tigers' high-paced attack on the move, opening holes for tailback Andre Ellington and providing solid protection for quarterback Tajh Boyd.
"This has been a really good year from an offensive line standpoint," Swinney said. "We haven't always had it together as a unit."
That was the case last spring when Freeman and junior Brandon Thomas were the only returners from a group that lost five seniors from last year's ACC champions. Swinney saw several untested, young players who were highly recruited but hadn't done much to make their mark. That continued through spring workouts and put the offensive line on top of the list of Clemson's biggest preseason questions.
"Holy cow," Swinney recalled thinking, "we've got a long way to go."
Freeman, a South Carolina native, heard from plenty of well-wishers in his hometown of Pelion that his unit was going to struggle. "We were a big question mark and rightfully so," Freeman said. "But it's not like we hadn't been recruiting guys and it's not like we hadn't been preparing them for the opportunity."
Caldwell, the former Vanderbilt coach, founded the offensive line "union," a blue-collar, hard-working, down-to-earth collective of players not satisfied to gradual improvement.
Freeman said the linemen bonded in the months leading up the season, with younger players looking to live up the examples set by the veterans.
Still, there were plenty of crossed fingers and silent prayers on Clemson's sideline at the opener against Auburn — and star rusher in defensive end Corey Lemonier — at the Georgia Dome. There were struggles as Auburn notched four sacks, but Clemson's line that included first time starters at left guard, right guard and right tackle plowed the way for it to gain 320 yards rushing. Clemson tailback Andre Ellington broke free for 228 yards.
It was an eye-opening effort, particularly for Swinney.
"When we came out of the Auburn game, we were thinking, 'OK, these ol' boys, we've got a chance here,'" he said.
The steady play continued and the "union" has given up just 16 sacks its past nine games and helped the Tigers lead the ACC in total offense at nearly 514 yards a game.
"When we first started we did have some questions. I was one of the questions," said sophomore left guard David Beasley, who's started nine of 10 games this fall. "I feel like we are better with the experience we have."
Clemson also put together a new right side of the line with guard Tyler Shatley and tackle Gifford Timothy. Shatley is a junior who's been a defensive lineman most of his time with the Tigers. Timothy is a sophomore.
"After every game I feel more comfortable with the way the offense works and how I play my position and get better," said Shatley, who was named the ACC offensive lineman of the week after Clemson's 47-31 victory over Georgia Tech last month.
Clemson's skill players also feel more comfortable with the offensive line. Quarterback Tajh Boyd understood the transition to younger players on the Tigers' line, but wasn't crazy about the prospect of running backwards while big, quick defensive linemen chased him down after down.
But Boyd's spent much of time upright and firing, the Clemson junior leading ACC in passing yards and total offense.
"Those guys do an outstanding job. As you can see," Boyd says, "I'm pretty comfortable out there right now."
One of the hardest things to do, Boyd said, is for a non-offensive lineman to get in the union. "I couldn't get in," he said.
Clemson closes league play Saturday against North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack (6-4, 3-3) lead the ACC with 30 sacks and will look to find cracks in Clemson's offensive front. North Carolina State became bowl eligible with last week's 37-6 victory over Wake Forest and hopes for its eighth victory in its last 12 games against ranked opponents.
North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien said his club can show a similar effort as they did last week against the Tigers. If the Wolfpack stay focused, don't give ball away and "do the things we have to do, then I don't have any problem playing against anybody," O'Brien said.
Swinney said it's not just Clemson's line starters stepping up. Swinney said backups like Kalon Davis, Ryan Norton, Shaq Anthony, Isaiah Battle and Reid Webster are pushing for playing time and making the most of their opportunities when called on.
Swinney is certain that next March he won't fret about his line.
"This spring is going to be a lot of fun," the coach said, "because we are going to have as much depth at that position as we've had in a long, long time."