Ask anyone involved in the sport where football games are won and lost, and the conversation typically starts with the trenches.
Considering the caliber of opponent Clemson will open the season against next month, that will be particularly true for the 2021 version of the Tigers out of the gate. With Clemson’s highly anticipated opener against Georgia just a month away, neither players nor coaches are oblivious to that reality.
It puts finding the right starting combination along the offensive line at a premium during fall camp, which begins Friday.
“I think fall camp is going to be big in trying to get people in the right place, find out who the best five are and what we need to do to move them around,” offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said.
There’s not as much turnover for the unit this year as there was following the 2019 season when the Tigers lost all but one of their starting offensive linemen. Still, there figures to be plenty of competition up front over the next month.
Caldwell said nothing is set in stone for his unit despite Clemson releasing a pre-camp depth chart earlier this summer, though, barring any significant injuries over the next four weeks, a handful of starting jobs seem to be settled up front. One of those is left tackle, where junior Jordan McFadden is making the transition from the right side to fill the void left by Jackson Carman, a second-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in this year’s NFL Draft.
A Spartanburg native, McFadden started every game at right tackle last season for a line that allowed less than two sacks per game. He was voted preseason all-ACC by league media members, though Caldwell opined McFadden still doesn’t garner as much attention as other players at his position nationally because, at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, McFadden doesn’t exactly have the prototypical size for a tackle.
But Caldwell doesn’t have much concern about McFadden’s ability to protect D.J. Uiagalelei’s blind side.
“He had a heck of a year last year. He did a great job,” Caldwell said. “I’d be shocked if he’s not the best in the league if he stays healthy.”
The Tigers also have both starting guards back in fifth-year senior Matt Bockhorst and junior Will Putnam. Both had surgery shortly after last season — for Bockhorst, it was a second arthroscopic knee procedure since high school, Caldwell said — and are entering camp with a clean bill of health.
“I’m watching him do squats and power cleans, and it’s amazing,” Caldwell said of Bockhorst. “He says it’s the best (his knee) has ever felt.”
It’s the remaining two spots where most of the uncertainty lies.
McFadden’s flip left a void at right tackle, and Clemson also has to replace veteran center Cade Stewart, who opted not to return for another season after spending five years in the program. Sophomores Hunter Rayburn and Mason Trotter are the two leading candidates for Stewart’s old job, and while neither may be as experienced as their predecessor, they’re not exactly green either.
Both were a part of the rotation up front last season as key reserves. Rayburn played in 10 games while Trotter played in all 13. They combined for 290 snaps.
As for McFadden’s old spot, Walker Parks is the favorite to take over at right tackle on a full-time basis. Parks, who played in 11 games last season as a true freshman, has always seemed like a prime candidate to break into the starting lineup sooner rather than later after signing with the Tigers as a top-100 recruit last year.
“I think (Parks) can be as good as there’s ever been here,” Caldwell said.
There are more talented youngsters that figure to be part of the rotation up front if not make a push for a spot among the starting five. Sophomore Mitchell Mayes is listed behind Parks on the two-deep, and second-year guards Paul Tchio and John Williams are also listed as backups heading into camp. Tchio logged 90 snaps as a true freshman last season.
Newcomer Marcus Tate went through spring practice as an early enrollee, and five-star tackle signee Tristan Leigh figures to draw plenty of eyes as he goes through his first practices as a Tiger. Playing time as a freshman offensive lineman is always hard to come by given the physical and mental demands of the position, but the Tigers will take whatever help they can get in improving a line that wasn’t immune to criticism last season, particularly when it came to trying to get push at the point of attack.
Despite scoring the third-most points in all of the FBS, Clemson ranked in the bottom half of the ACC in rushing a season ago. The Tigers averaged less than 154 yards on the ground and mustered just 78 rushing yards in their two losses.
Caldwell defended his group, saying the Tigers’ offensive front performed better than most realized given the circumstances surrounding the season. Caldwell said COVID-19 protocols left the unit short on personnel at times, and once Uiagalelei was forced into regular-season action against Boston College and Notre Dame (one of thoses losses) in place of Trevor Lawrence, those teams put more of an emphasis on stopping the run in an attempt to try to make the freshman beat them with his arm.
Still, Caldwell said he was disappointed his unit wasn’t as physical as it needed at times last season. That will have to change as he and the rest of the coaching staff look for the right combination up front heading into this season.
And it will have to change in a hurry with Clemson set to square off against arguably the most formidable defensive front it will see all season in Week 1. Georgia returns multiple starters along a defensive line that’s helped the Bulldogs yield fewer rushing yards than any FBS team the last two seasons, including veteran interior linemen Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt.
“We always cross-train and put guys in different positions,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s going to be the fun part of it.”