By Will Vandervort
As he was wrapping up his last workout at Clemson inside the WestZone Friday afternoon, former Clemson center Dalton Freeman took a step back and took it in for a second.
“I wish I had one more year,” said Freeman, who is leaving for Cortland, N.Y. on Saturday as part of the New York Jets football camp. “But Ryan (Norton) is going to do a great job, I have no doubt about that.”
I think it is safe to say Clemson feels the same way. But Freeman was the mainstay on the offensive line in Tigertown the last four seasons as he set records for career starts, games played and snaps in a Clemson career. And though the First-Team All-American was one of the best centers in the country, what Clemson will miss more than anything was his ability to lead.
“Dalton was the guy,” right guard Tyler Shatley said. “We looked at him for leadership and guidance. We wanted to do our best for him because we all knew he was working hard to put us in the best possible position.
“He would let you know if he was upset with something you might have done. You did not want to disappoint him. It made you work harder, and he pushed each of us to be our best.”
Shatley, along with left tackle Brandon Thomas, is one of the two guys Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is challenging to become the leaders on a unit that returns four starters. Though Shatley and Thomas work as hard as Freeman, the two are not as outspoken as Freeman, which is where Swinney has challenged them to step up.
“That’s something I’m working on improving,” Shatley said. “I mean, I will never be like Dalton, but I can get better than I am right now. I’m one of those guys that feel my hard work and dictation will speak for itself, but I know I need to be a little more vocal, too.
“There comes a time when you have to speak up and say something so I’m working on that.”
Shatley came on strong last year during his first season as an offensive lineman. He started all 13 games and registered 26 knockdown blocks after spending his first three seasons at Clemson on the defensive line.
Thomas is expected to start at left tackle, but he can play both tackle and guard positions. The Clemson coaches will like to see sophomore Isaiah Battle beat him out for the starting spot at left tackle, so they can move Thomas back to his natural position at left guard.
Guard is more likely the position Thomas will play in the NFL.
“I will do whatever they need me to do,” Thomas said. “I talked to my mom about it and if they need me to play guard then I will play guard. If they need me to play left tackle, then I will play left tackle. I just want to do what is in the best interest of the team and helps put us in position to win a championship.”
Swinney says the idea is to just get the best five guys on the field.
“I think we are very fortunate to have a guy like Brandon Thomas and a couple of other guys,” the Clemson coach said. “Having a guy like Brandon gives us a bunch of flexibility. He can play left tackle. He can play either guard and he can play right tackle. He really does not care. It gives us the flexibility to do different things.”
And it gives Clemson a leader, which Shatley and Thomas are already proving they are more than capable of doing.