CLEMSON — Saturday’s road-grader performance by Clemson’s offensive line was surprising in a number of ways.
A line which returned only two starters from 2011, and only one player – senior center Dalton Freeman – playing in the same position – rolled up 528 yards of total offense, including 320 rushing yards, in the No.14 Tigers’ 26-19 win over Auburn.
That line played 87 snaps, and the starting line played together for all but one play, with right tackle Gifford Timothy leaving following a minor knee injury.
There’s reason for excitement. Hyperbole.
Or, if you’re Chad Morris, establishing a baseline.
“It was a good first game,” Clemson’s second-year offensive coordinator said Monday. “They’ve set a standard. They’ve now set and said, ‘This is what we’re capable of playing at.’ Anything less than this is totally unacceptable. Period.”
Saturday night was about praise and excitement. Sunday was rest. Monday morning, the tearing-down began at Clemson’s usual 6:30 a.m. team film review.
“All it was was a great start. It was a really good first game,” Morris said. “And whoop-de-doo, we’ve got to go onto the next one. That’s what I told them this morning. You did good, you did what you were supposed to do.
“Let’s not be shocked that we won, that’s what we were supposed to do, that’s what we trained for, what we were supposed to do. OK, it’s behind us now. We’re not ordering rings or getting trophies, what are we going to do next week. That’s the only game that matters.”
Two weeks ago, Morris said, he didn’t even know who his five starters were.
“It was pretty intense, it was ugly,” he said. “I’m talking ugly as having to get pretty physical and nasty and challenge these guys. And those guys had to respond. There’s a lot to be said with the confidence those guys have.”
He said Freeman played “his most physical game since I’ve been here” and was “hands down the best up front.” Meanwhile, sophomore left guard David Beasley impressed in his first start. As a freshman last season, Beasley played 30 total snaps.
Saturday, counting penalty snaps, he played 92.
“David Beasley told me he didn’t ever remember playing 92 snaps,” Morris said. “That’s a guy who earned a lot of respect.”
He said junior right guard Tyler Shatley, playing his first career game on offense, brought “physicalness and ruggedness,” and that junior left tackle Brandon Thomas held up well against Auburn’s strong defensive front.
Timothy, who missed two weeks in August following surgery to repair a torn meniscus, looked stiff at times but improved after allowing a pair of first-half sacks.
“He did good things,” Morris said. “He got sloppy with his mechanics, he’d been out for a couple weeks. You could tell he missed some critical drill work. He’s going to focus on fundamentals. We’ve got to get better.”
Deeper, too. Morris said he felt comfortable with five linemen going the distance against Auburn, but expects some heated competition in practice this week, pointing to backup left guard Kalon Davis, backup guard Ryan Norton and backup right tackle Shaq Anthony.
“We’re still challenging guys up front,” he said. “We’ve still got competition, but what we’ve found now is that we’ve got a little bit of depth.”
Saturday, however, the five starters held up just fine, wearing down Auburn’s deep defensive line in the second half. Morris was impressed by the sideline communication and attitude.
“Guys were coming to the sideline, 14, 15 plays into (a drive), saying, ‘Coach, just keep pressing it, just keep pushing the tempo,’” he said. “I think you saw that late in the game. That was the staple. I think we felt like we had won the game on the offensive side of the ball, in the second and third quarter, because of the tempo we were pushing them to.”
Keeping that tempo and style will be crucial to this season’s overall success, he said.
“I’m the first one to challenge them and in a way that they really don’t like me and I really don’t care. But I challenge them in a way where they have to respond,” Morris said. “In order for us to get to where we need to be, this program, offensively has got to be, week in and week out, achieve the goals we need to have, for this team, we’ve got to be able to run the football. I think that you’ll see if we can run the football there are a lot of things that open up. It opens up our passing game even more. We’re putting a lot of pressure on those guys.”
Saturday? It was just the beginning.
“I think we all saw same thing, they’ve still got a lot of room for improvement,” Morris said. “We’re not ready to name them the ‘Seven Blocks Of Granite’ or ‘Four Horsemen’ yet. Those guys have earned some respect on this football team.”