Before Clemson began practices this past spring, one of the main concerns across the offensive line was what the Tigers were going to do about the center position.
Last year’s starter, Cade Stewart, decided his collegiate career was over, though he could have returned for one more season, due to the NCAA adding an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stewart’s departure left Clemson without an experienced replacement and searching for a new starter for a third straight season.
Some thought freshman sensation Ryan Linthicum might come in and win the job after enrolling at Clemson in January. And though he did well, the high school All-American was not ready once the spring came to an end.
However, redshirt sophomore Hunter Rayburn was ready. Now in his third season at Clemson, Rayburn surprised everyone, including his coaches, by grabbing the position and running away with it. Heading into fall camp, the starting job will be the 6-foot-4, 320-pound center’s job to lose.
“It’s an opportunity that I’m not going to take for granted,” he said this past spring. “All throughout high school, I just wanted to make the most of the opportunity there, and then, now that I’m here, I’m just going to do my best to make the most of my opportunity here.”
After redshirting in 2019 and gaining some experience over his first two years, Rayburn settled in and feels comfortable on the field.
“Growing up, I played baseball and basketball. So, I was always playing sports, but definitely not football,” he said. “When I started playing football in high school, it was just a completely different animal from any other sport I had ever played. So, once I got here, that sport that I was already somewhat unfamiliar with went to a whole new level. So, it definitely took me a good bit of time to really adjust to the game up here.”
The Pensacola, Fla., native knew he was at different level when he experienced his first “Paw Drill” during fall camp of his freshman year.
“In high school, you do the Oklahoma drill, and that’s pretty similar,” Rayburn said. “But definitely the PAW Drill, because the guys you’re lining up against are just as big as you, and they’re knocking you in the teeth, too. So, that first PAW Drill was definitely my ‘welcome to college’ moment.”
But that experience, plus his many more afterward, have led Rayburn to this moment. A moment where he is just a little more than two months away from making the first start of his career when Clemson faces Georgia in the season opener at Bank of American in Charlotte.
–Gavin Oliver contributed to this story
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