By Ed McGranahan.
This was supposed to be about Sammy Watkins.
Actually, about Sammy Watkins 2.0, or which players could best emulate him during his two-game suspension. The topic was derailed by another discussion about the offensive line.
Make no mistake. At this juncture the line is significantly more critical.
Replacing Watkins may be unlikely, but not impossible. Receivers aren’t an issue. With this team, it’s like a box of Kleenex tissues. Pull one out and another pops up. Nuke Hopkins, Charone Peake, Jaron Brown, Adam Humphries and Brandon Ford – Tajh Boyd shouldn’t be any trouble finding somebody to catch a pass.
Hopkins, who thrived last season as the second and third option with Watkins and tight end Dwayne Allen, may be first in the Auburn game. Peake might be the next best. Boyd said Peake is a different guy this year, focused and confident. He’s long and athletic and quick, a potential game-breaker whom some scouts like as well or better than Watkins coming out of high school.
Peake’s coaches have raved since practice began, but it’s becoming tougher to wade the through the bushes to find the berries when they speak.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings this back to topic.
“I don’t see too many weaknesses if any in our offensive line,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris said a few weeks ago.
“I think we’re going to be fine up front,” said Coach Dabo Swinney that same day. “We have some flexibility of getting our best five on the field. Right now, I do like where we are.”
That was then, this is now.
Right tackle Giff Timothy required surgery last week to repair a torn meniscus. Ordinarily his job would fall to the backup – redshirt freshman Joe Gore at present. Apparently that’s not sufficiently comforting for Swinney and Morris three weeks before the Auburn game.
Ryan Norton has practiced well, by all accounts. Norton is listed as the backup center. Under the category, “leaving no stones unturned,” among the options under consideration is moving starting center Dalton Freeman to tackle and starting Norton at center. That’s Dalton Freeman first team all-conference as a junior, preseason pick to repeat and the No. 2 center in the nation by NFL Draft Scout.
It certainly speaks well of Norton, the odds-on heir to Freeman’s job next year, but ordinarily you don’t move your All-American center to tackle unless there are some serious reservations with the other options.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher what has happened. For all the posturing it’s apparent that youngsters Gore and Isaiah Battle and Shaq Anthony are on the far side of the learning curve.
Freeman knows the offense as well as Boyd and could, figuratively speaking, play anywhere, so tackle isn’t a reach for him and might be a reasonable solution for the short term. It may require an extraordinary sacrifice if it lasts longer than a game or two, because Freeman came back this season believing it would improve his marketability for the next level.
He also believes this team has the chance to surpass last year’s achievements, and wants the opportunity to flush some of the residual acrid taste from the Orange Bowl.
Swinney and Morris want “the best five” on the field, which certainly makes sense, but among the more subtle issues are the chemistry and the choreography, the communication between the quarterback and the center.
They take time. The clock is ticking.