NCF Nation: Isaiah Battle

On first glance, the announcement that backup offensive tackle Shaq Anthony has decided to transfer from Clemson may not seem like much.

But when you combine it with the news that running back Zac Brooks is lost for the season, the Clemson run game has now taken on added questions headed into the season.

The Tigers already had to replace starting All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas, starting guard Tyler Shatley and 1,000-yard back Roderick McDowell. While Anthony was previously suspended for the opener against Georgia, there are no certainties with the offensive line nor the run game in Week 1.

Especially since Clemson struggled to produce consistency in that area last season. Especially since Clemson will need an effective run game to help take pressure off new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt and a new-look group of receivers against what should be an aggressive Georgia defense with familiar foe Jeremy Pruitt taking charge.

Brooks is the bigger blow in the short-term, because he would have contributed heavily against Georgia. Plus, he was the top returning rusher from a year ago and one of the veterans in the group with experience in big games.

But at least Clemson has the luxury of having depth at the position, a group coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have talked up since the spring. Conceivably, the Tigers should still be able to play four to five backs once they settle on a rotation and still be just as good as they would have been with Brooks in the mix.

That, of course, is dependent on the offensive line, too.

So in the long term, the Anthony loss could loom much larger. Clemson has little in the way of depth at tackle with Anthony gone. The Tigers will now be relying on Joe Gore, pretty raw at the position with just 124 snaps over the past two seasons, and Isaiah Battle -- who has been banged up during camp. Anthony was listed as the backup to both players.

Gore has been one of the bright spots this fall, and would have most likely started against Georgia with Anthony suspended. But now there is no margin for error moving forward. The hope is that Gore steps into the right tackle spot without any issues. But if either Gore or Battle gets hurt, the Tigers could be in trouble. Kalon Davis, projected to start at guard, has also played some tackle during the fall so he would be one potential option as a backup at the position.

It all adds a bit more intrigue to what happens with Clemson this season.
Offensive linemen are some of the most interesting, well-spoken players to interview, and Clemson center Dalton Freeman is no exception. He graduated this past December, but life hasn’t gotten much easier. He will graduate again in August with a second degree, and he’s also one of just two starters returning on Clemson’s offensive line. How Clemson fares up front is the biggest key to whether or not the Tigers can repeat as Atlantic Division and ACC champs in 2012. I spoke with Freeman recently about his outlook on the offensive line heading into spring ball. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

How comfortable are you with the guys who are around you, or are going to be competing for time around you?

[+] EnlargeDalton Freeman
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCenter Dalton Freeman is one of just two starters returning on Clemson's offensive line.
Dalton Freeman: I’m very comfortable. It’s obviously pretty tough when you lose as many guys as we have. Experience is something you really can’t coach. For us, it’s going to be an interesting spring, but I’m very excited about the young talent we have, and the guys we continue to recruit and who come in year in and year out. That’s why we do recruit, is to replace those guys. It’s going to be interesting to see who accepts that role and steps up.

How do you feel your role is going to change?

DF: I feel like this year I’m going to have to be a lot more of a coach on the field. In the years past, we’ve had a lot of experienced guys and I’d always kind of been the younger guy. We were very comfortable, didn’t have to make as many calls, knew what each other was thinking. Now I think I’m really going to have to spell everything out just because of the experience factor. They’re not going to be used to playing in front of people, with the crowd noise, things like that. That’s not a bad thing, because it keeps me on my toes and I’ll be constantly reminded of what I need to do. I’ll be able to get everybody on the same page.

How important do you think it is that you guys come together quickly?

DF: It’s very important. I’ve been eating lunch with them every now and then and trying to bond with them off the field. Obviously we’re doing a lot in the weight room and football-related, but you really can’t start jelling until you put those pads on and you’re out there, day in and day out, but we’re a pretty close group and I feel like we’ll only get closer. This spring will be really interesting to see who wants to step up and take the initiative.

Who are some of the guys or names Clemson fans should know or will get to know on the line this year?

DF: I think the person to watch is the true freshman who’s already enrolled, he graduated high school early and came in, Isaiah Battle. He’s one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever been around. He’s just a specimen. He had offers to play basketball. He’s very good on the hardwood, but he’s extremely athletic and seems to be picking up what we’re doing pretty quick. It’s just going to be a matter if he can get used to the speed of the game.

Do you feel like there’s pressure on your group because you guys are returning so much other talent at receiver, running back and quarterback?

DF: Yeah, definitely. I feel like there’s pressure every year on the offensive line, though, as well as any other position, because when we are experienced and expected to play well, there’s a lot of pressure and all eyes are on us. This year is the flip side, but there’s still a lot of pressure. Everybody doesn’t know what to expect and they’re counting on us to either make or break the season. It’s a good thing, and I like the pressure. I think our guys do, too, and we take it as motivation.

Do you remember, what was it, 2008 when coach Tommy Bowden got fired? It was kind of a similar situation. Remind me what your role was that season.

DF: I was getting redshirted. I came in and he got fired after six games or so. I didn’t actually play any that year.

The only reason I bring it up is because it was a similar situation. The line struggled, but you guys had so much talent at the other positions. Have you looked back on that year as a cautionary tale, or am I reading too much into it, which is very possible.

DF: Personally I have not looked back, but I have had many people approach me and talk about it.

Oh really?

DF: Yeah, it’s kind of funny you bring it up. It is something that circulates, and we obviously are starting to kind of think about that. We don’t want to be the Achilles' heel of the team. I don’t think there’s going to be a drop-off. I think we’ll be able to surprise people. We did a good job of recruiting. We’ve got a great offensive coordinator, a great offensive line coach. And they’ve done a great job of developing our younger players. It’s just a matter of them going out and doing it.