With Clemson’s mammoth opener against Georgia less than two weeks away, The Clemson Insider is going to spend some time taking a closer look at some of the position matchups that could go a long way in determining the outcome of that Sept. 4 clash at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
First up is Clemson’s offensive line against Georgia’s defensive line.
Note: If only one number is listed in parentheses beside a player’s name, that means that player hasn’t started a game. The number listed is how many career games he has played. If no numbers are listed for a player, he has yet to play a game.
Clemson’s projected starting offensive line
LT Jordan McFadden, Sr (29 games played, 12 starts)
LG Matt Bockhorst, Sr (40, 13) or Marcus Tate, Fr
C Matt Bockhorst or Mason Trotter, Soph (13) or Hunter Rayburn, Soph (10)
RG Will Putnam, Jr (23, 12)
RT Walker Parks, Soph (11)
Clemson’s offensive line still has experience despite losing two starters from last season. The biggest question is where are the Tigers going to use some of that experience?
The Tigers aren’t overly concerned about their edges. McFadden is an All-American type of player at tackle, though the opener will be his first time lining up on the left side for the Tigers after starting every game on the right last season. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recently opined that you’re not going to find a better offensive lineman in the country than McFadden and added Parks, a former top-75 recruit who’s starting for the first time, isn’t far behind.
Putnam is steady and reliable at right guard, but who’s going to be lining up beside him at center? Swinney said the competition between Bockhorst, Trotter, Rayburn and redshirt freshmen Trent Howard could last up until game week, though, from a continuity standpoint up front, settling on Cade Stewart’s replacement as soon as possible would help.
Finding the best five offensive linemen, Swinney said, is the ultimate goal. Perhaps Bockhorst at center is part of that, though the fifth-year senior is an all-conference guard. There were some center-quarterback exchange issues with all the centers at times during fall camp, but Swinney said it was much better during the Tigers’ final scrimmage last week.
Regardless of what the combination looks like on the interior, Clemson is going to need more push from the collective group. The Tigers were great in pass protection last season — the only ACC team to allow fewer than two sacks per game — but weren’t able to consistency open up many creases in the running game, averaging less than 154 rushing yards per game (75th nationally).
Georgia’s projected starting defensive line
DE Travon Walker, Jr (21)
NT Jordan Davis, Sr (32, 19)
DT Devonte Wyatt, Sr (35, 11)
EDGE Adam Anderson, Sr (38)
Georgia has developed a reputation as one of the country’s most formidable defensive fronts during the Kirby Smart era, and the stats back it up.
Whether it’s trying to keep the Bulldogs’ interior linemen out of the backfield or their edge rushers away from the quarterback, opposing offenses have had a hard time with them up front. Georgia has owned the nation’s top rush defense each of the last two years and finished 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks a season ago.
The Bulldogs held opponents to just 2.39 yards per rush last season, nearly a full yard fewer than Texas A&M, the SEC’s No. 2 team in that department. And with Davis and Wyatt still around, Georgia figures to be just as stingy this fall. Davis, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound nose tackle, could be making money in the NFL right now but is back at Georgia as an All-America candidate. And Wyatt isn’t exactly small at 6-3 and 315 pounds.
Georgia did lose two of its top pass rushers in Azeez Ojulari (NFL) and Jermaine Johnson (transferred to Florida State) off last year’s defense, but Anderson is set to take over on a full-time basis at the EDGE position in the Bulldogs’ 3-4 defense after finishing second on the team in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (6.5). Walker, a preseason all-SEC selection, is taking over for the departed Malik Herring at end.
Both teams are breaking in one new starter on the edges, and given McFadden’s talent and skill set, Clemson has to feel good about its chances of at least neutralizing the Bulldogs there.
The Tigers’ offensive line also sees all sorts of fronts, blitzes and personnel groupings from Brent Venables’ defense during practice, so it’s unlikely Georgia is going to show the group something it hasn’t seen before. The question for Clemson will be can the interior of the Tigers’ line consistently stay in front of and move those two big bodies in the middle of Georgia’s defensive line?
That’s a tall task for every offensive line that has to deal with Davis and Wyatt, but the best chance the Tigers have of consistently moving the ball is to mix in the running game — or at least make Georgia respect the threat of the running game — and stay multi-dimensional on offense.
Clemson could also try to attack the perimeter or use elements of the passing game as an extension of the running game depending on how things are going up front, but the bottom line is the Tigers need their offensive line to play as well as possible. Because the last thing Clemson wants is Georgia’s defensive line pinning its ears back and forcing D.J. Uiagalelei to run for his life, which would be worst-case scenario for Clemson’s offense.