By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
Around the country, conversations among fans concerning the offensive line of any given team are generally among the most pessimistic one can have. Seemingly no fan, coach, or prognosticator thinks a particular team is good enough on the offensive front.
Offensive linemen are difficult to evaluate. In my own unofficial analysis of the inexact science of recruiting, there seem to be more misses in trying to project offensive linemen than at any other position. In this group, physical giants with enormous potential are a dime a dozen, while realized talent comes at a premium.
Sometimes, it takes two or three years for even the most promising young player to blossom into a solid offensive lineman. But the key to being proficient up front goes a step further.
Having five quality linemen isn’t enough. A major element in success comes when a group spends time playing alongside the same players to develop chemistry. This is where Georgia and Clemson will be defined this season.
Both teams return a slew of players on the offensive line, which is a major reason why expectations are high for both programs. Good line play can pave the way for success, just as shoddy line play can lead to disaster. Clemson fans need only look to the 2008 season for an example of this.
The Bulldogs return a combined 68 starts out of a potential 70 from last season. The left side of the line is the strength, with a pair of seniors topping the depth chart. Tackle Kenarious Gates started at both tackle and guard last season, and Dallas Lee played both left and right guard at times.
The only two starts unaccounted for on the line came when projected right guard Chris Burnette, the other senior in the lineup, was injured. He is backed up by fellow senior Austin Long, who played in 13 games last season and will provide quality depth at the position. Junior David Andrews is a solid anchor at the center position.
Right tackle is more up in the air, with sophomores Xzavier Ward and John Theus battling for playing time. Theus is incredibly gifted and should see the field plenty this season as a returning starter, but it was Ward who got the nod out of spring ball. This competition could play itself out on the field in Death Valley if things continue as expected.
The Bulldogs have several juniors who are expected to play roles at different positions on the offensive front as well. Guys like Mark Beard, Watts Dantzler, and Hunter Long provide Mark Richt with a thick security blanket should injury occur.
Clemson has to feel good about its depth and quality on the offensive line, as well. Unlike last season, when Dalton Freeman was the unquestioned leader of the pack, there are several veterans to share the leadership burden. Much like Georgia, the Tigers will rely on versatility to deal with injuries.
Senior Brandon Thomas will man the left tackle spot. He started 10 games last season and has played extensively at left guard in the past, which could mean more snaps for backup Eric MacLain and mammoth prospect Isaiah Battle.
Left guard has co-starters in juniors David Beasley and Kalon Davis, both of whom saw significant time last season.
The right side of the line looks good too, with converted defensive lineman Tyler Shatley providing senior leadership. He brought toughness to this group in 2012 that was much needed, and another year of training at right guard should be of benefit to him.
Junior Gifford Timothy will be the starter at right tackle after a solid performance last season.
Most would presume the Tigers’ biggest need would be at center, but sophomore Ryan Norton is coming off a year in which he played meaningful snaps all over the interior line. He has earned the respect of his teammates, which is a huge part of playing the position. Perhaps the main issue with the Clemson line is depth at this spot on the field.
The Bottom Line: Clemson’s offensive line should be a strength of the squad. There is quality depth returning, and a second season of continuity—for the most part—should be beneficial. But Georgia is eight- or nine-deep with upper-talented players that should pave the way for a potent running game and keep Aaron Murray’s jersey clean.
This is not a weakness for the Tigers, but it is clearly a major source of optimism for the Bulldogs.