ACC: Chris Hairson
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Clemson's offensive line -- the subject of so much preseason debate, and the heart of so many offensive struggles during the season -- has finally come together. It only took three quarters of the season. Over the past three weeks, the Tigers' revamped starting line has been playing the most consistently it has all season, and it's no coincidence Clemson's playmakers are finally getting their yards.
"I've never been through anything like this one, where I've had so many injuries and at key positions," offensive line coach Brad Scott said. "It's been a challenge."
Quite frankly, it's been a wreck.
Starting left tackle Chris Hairston was zipping around campus on his scooter, hit a pothole, and the scooter went one way and Hairston went the other. He missed two games with a knee injury.
"I said there's gotta be a South Carolina law against a 310-pound guy riding a dang scooter," Scott said.
Hairston, Barry Humphries (knee) and David Smith (high ankle sprain) have missed a combined 13 games so far this year. This was the first time since 1943 that Clemson has had to use three redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup at the same time. None of the offensive linemen have started every game at the same position.
Scott has had to use seven different starting combinations in the first 10 games. But this week, it will be the same lineup the Tigers used against Boston College and Duke -- Dabo Swinney's two wins as head coach. Here's a look at the lineup that has won ACC games for Clemson:
LG: Thomas Austin -- Originally the starting center, the only one to start all 10 games this season. Leader of the group.
RG: Mason Cloy -- Redshirt freshman who took over at Wake Forest for an injured Cory Lambert, but played just half the game because of a knee injury.
C: Bobby Hutchinson -- A fifth-year senior and career backup who was supposed to spend the season as a student-assistant coach, but injuries changed that plan.
LT: Chris Hairston -- Injured in moped accident after the game against the Citadel.
RT: Landon Walker -- Redshirt freshman who has started seven games here.
Heading into the Alabama game, Scott had fourth-year juniors Jamarcus Grant (left guard) and Lambert (right tackle) slated to start. Their experience was supposed to compensate for the loss of four starters. They're still valuable members of the offensive line, but younger players -- Cloy and Walker -- have won their jobs.
"It's our best lineup right now," Scott said. "We've played probably better than we have been playing. Not that we've played terrible, we've been OK all year. We've taken some hits, but I'm going to tell you, this is going to be an outstanding offensive line in the future. Every one of these kids are going to be back. There are going to be some good days ahead."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden didn't want to elaborate last week as his team prepared for its first conference game against NC State, but he had a few plays ready to help compensate for three freshmen starters on the offensive line. Bowden came ready with reverses, bubble screens, tunnel screens, play-action passes, three-step drops and added another protection that was easier than man protection.
"We did have some things going into the game, but we really didn't need them," Bowden said.
The Tigers' line, which included freshmen Mason Cloy, David Smith and Landon Walker, got a true test from NC State's defense and came out on top, 29-7. Quarterback Cullen Harper wasn't sacked and was rarely pressured. It was an impressive performance, considering NC State was leading the ACC with eight sacks in two games.
Cloy started at right guard in place of an injured Barry Humphries, who is out at least 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. Walker started in place of left tackle Chris Hairston, who bruised his knee in a motor scooter accident, and David Smith, a redshirt freshman, started at left guard. Hairston is questionable for this week, but will probably return for the Maryland game.
The young players have one more breather on their schedule against South Carolina State before getting into the heart of league play.
"Now I feel pretty good," Bowden said. "I believe [the Wolfpack] were leading the ACC in sacks and maybe tackles for losses going into the game so that was a concern and coming out of the game with no sacks ... I'm real pleased with the performance of those guys, not only in their pass protection with no sacks, but their run blocking. Three freshmen, that's a whole bunch of guys."