Battle-Thomas bowl swap sets stage for wide-open competition on Tigers' OL

Dabo Swinney: 'Right now I have no idea who our starting five will be'

Tajh Boyd and the offensive line

Photo by Mark Crammer

Tajh Boyd and the offensive line

Early in the Chick-fil-A Bowl the Tigers took a blow, losing a player that Dabo Swinney feared would change the outcome of the game.

It wasn't Sammy Watkins.

Watkins, the 2011 national rookie of the year and one of Clemson's most dangerous playmakers, indeed went down with an ankle injury on the Tigers' first snap of the game. Adam Humphries immediately slid in to take his place.

But a series or two later, right tackle Gifford Timothy limped off the field with a knee injury, sending the coaches into scramble mode.

Freshman Joe Gore - who had been elevated to second team when Shaq Anthony was ruled academically ineligible - got the first call. Gore struggled, however, and coaches looked for another option.

They moved junior Brandon Thomas moved from left tackle to right tackle, and first-year freshman Isaiah Battle stepped in on the left. For the rest of the game, Thomas and Battle better than held their own against LSU All-America defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, both of whom are projected as first-round NFL draft picks.

Asked if he would consider making the move a permanent one, Dabo Swinney says it's too early to predict how the Tigers' offensive line will shake out during the spring and preseason. "Right now I have no idea who our starting five will be," he said.

"(The move) was ideal for the LSU game, because there was no way that Isaiah could have played right tackle," Swinney said. "I wasn't sure that Brandon could do it, because he had played or practiced at right tackle.

"Everybody talked about losing Sammy, but we could overcome that. But we're talking about taking a guy who hadn't played a whole lot, but who had improved and gotten better, and you throw him out into that area against those cats and say 'let's go get it done.' "

Over time, Swinney is convinced that the 6-7, 275-pound Battle will develop into one of Clemson's best offensive tackles ever.

"The thing I like about Battle is that his up-side is tremendous," Swinney said. "He has a chance to be as good as we've had here. He has the skills and the size, but the thing I like about him more than anything is that he's got toughness and competitiveness. He's got a little bit of an attitude in how he plays the game."

Swinney expects a much more competitive situation all along the offensive front this spring, and he indicated that current second-teamers will get a chance to dislodge returning starters.

"As far as what our best lineup is going to be, that's why we practice," he said. "We're going to see who wants to be the five, and I think we're going to have more competition than we've had, especially compared to last year. Whoever the best five are, we'll go with them.

"I think next year we'll have a chance to play more people. I thought Kalon Davis made great strides down the stretch, as did Ryan Norton. I think (Eric) Mac Lain is going to be a factor. I think Mac Lain could play either tackle or either guard. I'm excited about him. And Reid Webster showed some progress. And then guys like (Patrick), (Jay) Guillermo, and O.J. (Oliver Jones) we'll see where they are. And Joe Gore.

"Joe is very, very talented. It's just a matter of mentally getting him where he needs to be, and putting it altogether. He's going to get there, and is going to be a real good one."

Swinney said that with the proper response to his academic suspension, Shaq Anthony - who was in the mix for the starting position at both left and right tackle before the 2012 season began - has a chance to be a factor as well.

"Shaq Anthony is a guy who, if he will be committed, he can help us," said Swinney. "But he's got to be more committed on and off the field to be able to compete the way he needs to compete."

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