Football is a physical game by nature. That’s particularly true in the trenches.
And for Clemson’s offensive line, it’s been a constant talking point considering how last season went.
The Tigers averaged just 4.4 yards per rush and 153.8 rushing yards per game, 10th-worst in the ACC and the team’s fewest since rushing for less than 147 yards on average back in 2014. And that was with the services of Travis Etienne, who finished his stellar collegiate career as the ACC’s all-time leading rusher before taking his talents to the NFL in April.
To put all the blame for the lack of a consistent running game at the feet of the offensive line would be unfair considering play calls, blocking schemes and health all play a part, but those who were a part of the group have been candid in their assessment of the line’s performance last season, which included what they felt was a lack of consistent physicality.
“I wouldn’t say we lacked physicality at all points, but it’s pretty fair to say we were inconsistent with it,” said senior left guard Matt Bockhorst, who’s also in the running for the starting job at center. “And that’s something that you’ve got to look at the man in the mirror and consider how you’re going to improve upon that.”
Bockhorst said many of Clemson’s linemen have added what he called “good weight” to help them be more physical at the point of attack, but fellow senior Jordan McFadden said improving in that aspect has been about the unit taking on a different mindset as much as anything else.
With right guard Will Putnam also back, the Tigers are returning three starters along the offensive line.
“We don’t want to be a dirty offensive line by any means, but we want to outphysical every opponent,” said McFadden, who’s making the switch from right tackle to left. “We want to play to the whistle. No matter how tired you get.”
Though McFadden said the group doesn’t want to make any excuses for the way it performed in the running game, he felt like injuries impacted the line’s performance at times. Clemson dealt with its share of them up front last season, including Bockhorst, who’s healthy again after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery shortly after the season.
“I feel the best I’ve felt in over a year,” Bockhorst said.
Freshman Dietrick Pennington (foot/ankle) has missed some time during camp, but other than that, the line has maintained a relatively clean bill of health leading up to the Tigers’ marquee opener against Georgia on Sept. 4. And with more young linemen ready to play than Clemson had at this time last year, McFadden said he’s more optimistic about the depth of the unit, which he believes should help the unit maintain its collective aggressiveness.
“If I get tired, another guy can come in and we’ll keep rolling guys in and be fresh,” McFadden said. “I would say our biggest thing is playing to the whistle. And finishing people to the ground. I think that’s a big emphasis for us as well.”
Physicality has also been harped on with the group because of who it will be squaring off against in Week 1. Led by a couple of space eaters on the interior in nose guard Jordan Davis (6-foot-6, 340 pounds) and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt (6-3, 315), Georgia has been the nation’s top rush defense two years running and ranked seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total yards allowed last season (305.9 per game).
But the Tigers can talk about it until they’re blue in the face. The group knows how it performs against the defenses other than its own is all that matters.
And that’s really all that’s left for the line to do at this point.
“Let’s just spot the ball and play and see if we’re really about it,” Bockhorst said. “Talking season is soon to be over. You’re either going to talk about it or be about it. It’s one of the two, and you’re going to find out real quick.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!