CLEMSON — Clemson’s offensive line has yet to receive a punchy nickname – or even much credit – but the Tigers’ rebuilt line has been quietly effective through five games.
No.15 Clemson is 4-1, 1-1 in ACC play entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. visit from Georgia Tech, and the offense is humming right along, rolling up 511.8 yards and 40.2 points per game.
Equally impressive is the 200.6 yards rushing per game that Clemson averages, third in the ACC – also up 27 yards per game from this time a year ago.
Through five games, junior quarterback Tajh Boyd has been sacked only seven times. In last week’s 45-31 win at Boston College, Clemson allowed only one sack – and that was on Boyd for an avoidable intentional grounding penalty.
A year ago, the Tigers’ line allowed 33 sacks, and while they piled up in the second half of the season, the line had allowed 10 through five games, putting this group ahead of 2011’s pace.
“Coming into the season we were hearing all the arguments whether we were going to be able to block for Tajh, keep him upright,” said junior left tackle Brandon Thomas. “I think we’ve handled that pretty well. As a team I think we worked hard over the summer and I think we’re pretty good up front now.”
“We’ve got some confidence in those guys, we don’t have many of them right now,” Morris said. “I think we played six, seven guys (at Boston College) and were an injury from having our other guy out there. I’m proud of where those guys are but we’re a long ways from being where we want to be with them.”
The line isn’t deep, but it has proved durable. Last week, four of the five linemen (Thomas, sophomore right tackle Gifford Timothy, sophomore left guard David Beasley and junior right guard Tyler Shatley) played at least 81 of 85 snaps, with Thomas and Timothy playing every snap. Senior center Dalton Freeman, slightly hampered by a thumb injury, played 75 snaps. Reserve guards Ryan Norton and Reid Webster played 15 and three snaps apiece, respectively. Sophomore reserve guard Kalon Davis missed the trip with a hamstring strain.
It marked the second consecutive game where the starting five played the bulk of snaps, building continuity.
“At first (over the first three weeks) we had people hurt, we’ve had to jumble them up,” Thomas said. “We had Kalon coming in playing for David, Reid Webster coming in (at right guard). First five, we’re pretty solid. We’re coming along. We’ve worked hard and I think we’ll keep progressing.”
Beasley has been one of the most pleasant surprises; Morris and Swinney said this week that he was the top lineman at Boston College.
“I think he’s come a long way,” Thomas said, extolling Beasley’s work ethic. “I feel he’s developing into a good player and he’ll be good for us in the future.”
Could this line be better than 2011’s group, which struggled down the stretch, particularly in pass protection?
“I don’t want to diss guys from last year, but I think we’re pretty good this year,” Thomas said. “I think we’re more athletic. We’re younger but we can move better.”
There are still areas where the line can improve, however, starting in short yardage: coaches and linemen alike were angry with execution on a third and short and fourth and short that Boston College stuffed early in the fourth quarter.
“We were pretty upset,” Thomas said. “They put it on our shoulders to pick up yards. Coaches look to us and that’s where it has to start.”