Dabo Swinney grinned Monday as he scolded reporters for shunning his preseason prediction that Clemson’s offensive line would be a strength this season.
“You could’ve bought low on that stock,” Swinney said.
Hard to blame the media for second guessing Swinney’s optimism, though. The Tigers saw four of last year’s starters depart this offseason, with the final holdover, Ryan Norton, succumbing to injuries in early September. By the time Clemson started playing ACC games, the Tigers had five new starters on the line, including a true freshman at left tackle. By the standards usually used for evaluating offensive lines, Clemson had reached junk bond status.
According to Phil Steele’s preseason ranking of returning starts, Clemson ranked 105th nationally, but that was before Isaiah Battle’s departure for the NFL’s supplemental draft. Without him, the unit returned a grand total of 30 starts, a tally only nine FBS teams failed to eclipse. Of that group, six finished this year 100th or worse in sack rate.
So, it seemed clear: For all the weapons at the skill positions Clemson brought to the table in 2015, the offensive line was going to be a work in progress. As it turned out, however, Swinney was right. Clemson’s line was good. Really good.
“We all knew what we could do, we had to just go out and perform,” center Jay Guillermo said. “We’ve done that.”
Guillermo’s a perfect example of the resilience of this year’s line. He had one career start before this season, and as recently as this spring his career appeared to be over. When center Norton went down early in the year, however, Guillermo stepped in and didn’t miss a beat.
Meanwhile, Mitch Hyatt became the first true freshman to start every game at left tackle for Clemson since 1944, and he’s looked like a veteran. Eric Mac Lain, Tyrone Crowder and Joe Gore have been stalwarts. The entire group earned a first-, second- or third-team All-ACC nod, and for good reason.
Clemson has allowed a lower rate of pressure in every game than its opponent has averaged against Power 5 foes this season. Among Power 5 schools, Clemson ranks second in sack rate and third in pressure rate allowed. The line has created 3.03 yards per rush before first contact, a rate nearly double last year’s tally, when Clemson ranked 59th of 65 Power 5 schools.
“It’s amazing how they’ve all gotten better and better every day,” All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson said of the line he faces in practice each day.
Guillermo has a tattoo on his arm in the shape of a shield with a tiger paw in the center and the words “The Union” etched above and “Offensive Lineman” below. He and Mac Lain came up with the design, and it’s fitting. This is a group that’s worked as a cohesive unit, a sum that’s far greater than those individual parts.
“You have standout players on every team, but that front five, you really all have to play together,” Guillermo said. “We all know how to play with each other, what different guys do better, and so we have a feel for what our technique needs to be. It’s something that’s been completely different from what I’ve felt in the past.”
Give ample credit to offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who’s had answers to every question that’s arisen since last season ended. Swinney said there’s no better gauge of how the line is playing that Caldwell, who’s been the happiest coach in the locker room all year.
And what’s not to be happy about? This line was Clemson’s secret weapon all season, and as the Tigers get set to face Oklahoma's strong pass rush in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl, Caldwell knows he’s got the right guys for the job.
“He’s an old country man, and he says every day, 'Let’s go out and have a good country practice,'” Guillermo said. “He’s getting guys to understand what he wants. This is how he wants it, this is how we’re going to do it, and everyone in the room has a workingman’s attitude.”