Less than three weeks remain before Clemson faces off against Georgia in what’s widely viewed as the marquee matchup in college football on Labor Day weekend, and the Tigers are still doing plenty of mixing and matching in their search for the right combination along the offensive line.
The position perhaps under the biggest microscope up front is center, where things still appear to be fluid.
Clemson has three starters on the offensive line back from last season in guards Matt Bockhorst and Will Putnam and Jordan McFadden, a preseason all-ACC selection who’s moving from right tackle to left to replace Cincinnati Bengals draft pick Jackson Carman. Walker Parks, who played in 11 games last season as a true freshman, has gotten most of the first-team reps at McFadden’s old spot during fall camp as the favorite to take over there, but who will end up taking over for the departed Cade Stewart in the middle of the line remains up in the air.
Saturday’s scrimmage, though, may have offered some clarity on where things stand in the competition.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Mason Trotter, Hunter Rayburn and Bockhorst are all continuing to share first-team reps during camp. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, however, didn’t mention Rayburn when asked about how those reps were divvied up during the scrimmage.
Elliott said Trotter also rotated in but that Bockhorst got “some good work” at center during the scrimmage, which would create another vacancy up front if the Tigers ultimately decide to make Bockhorst their full-time center. During portions of practice that have been open to the media during camp, true freshman Marcus Tate has slid into the starting lineup at left guard when Bockhorst has worked at center, an indication of the direction Clemson might go there if that happens.
Swinney said the Tigers are still trying different combinations and cross-training some linemen at various spots in order to make the most informed decision not only on a center but also the collective group.
“Right now, we’re trying to find who’s the best five and getting the right combination,” Swinney said. “And then not just the best five but making sure we have the type of flexibility we need for three weeks from now.”
Bockhorst, a fifth-year senior who’s played 1,352 snaps during his time with the Tigers, is the most experienced contender for the job in terms of playing time, and Swinney said in the spring Bockhorst could “easily be our starter” if that means getting the best five offensive linemen on the field. Trotter played 147 snaps over nine games last season as a freshman while Rayburn has 97 career snaps to his name (true freshman Ryan Linthicum, a four-star recruit, hasn’t been getting first-team reps).
Rayburn, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore, drew praise from Swinney and his teammates throughout the spring to the point that he could’ve been viewed as the frontrunner for the job then, but Rayburn hasn’t been mentioned as often this fall. That might not mean much, but Swinney said he’s looking for consistency out of Rayburn and the others at a position on the line where being able to process things mentally is just as important as being able to handle them physically.
The top three contenders will have to start showing it sooner rather than later.
“You’ve got to go take (the job),” Swinney said. “Simple as that. Day in and day out. If you’re the best guy, you’ve got to prove it every day. We’ve got a lot of competition. Everybody wants to play, and everybody wants to be that guy.”