It took just four games for Clemson to make a change on its retooled offensive line, and Dabo Swinney isn’t shutting the door on the possibility of more coming.
“We’re considering everything,” Clemson’s coach said. “There ain’t nothing we ain’t considering because we’re just not very good right now.”
It’s been a rough start for a unit that began the season with two new starters and a pair of returning starters that are playing different positions than they did a season ago (former guard Matt Bockhorst at center and left tackle Jordan McFadden flipping over from the right side). One of the newbies, true freshman left guard Marcus Tate, was replaced by third-year sophomore Paul Tchio in the starting lineup against North Carolina State.
Fellow sophomore Hunter Rayburn also rotated in at that spot, but Swinney said the coaching staff is continuing to search for the right combination up front after the group again had issues with communication and blocking assignments in the Tigers’ 27-21 double-overtime loss.
The unit was physically overwhelmed by Georgia in the season opener with the Bulldogs holding Clemson to 2 net rushing yards while racking up seven sacks. But while the pass protection has gradually improved (just two sacks allowed since), a consistent lack of push up front still hasn’t given much room for the Tigers’ running backs to operate between the tackles.
No. 19 Clemson (2-2, 1-1 ACC) rushed for just 103 yards against N.C. State and was averaging less than 2 yards per carry before quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei broke free for a 37-yard run late in the fourth quarter. It dropped the Tigers to 98th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards (126.2 per game), which is actually one of their better statistical national rankings through four games. Clemson, which has yet to eclipse 14 points in regulation against an FBS foe this season, is 105th in scoring (21.5 points per game), 115th in passing and 121st in total offense.
Tchio is still listed as the starter at left guard heading into Saturday’s game at Boston College (4-0, 0-0), though that’s the only change on the depth chart for now. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Monday another move the Tigers are contemplating up front is whether or not to move backup tackle Mitchell Mayes inside, a strong indication of how the coaching staff feels about the production — or lack thereof — it’s getting from its interior linemen.
“Tchio did OK. Rayburn got a few plays here and there,” Swinney said. “It’s something we’re constantly evaluating, working on and trying to find the right combination. Just looking for consistency.”
The Tigers are also dealing with attrition in the backfield with Lyn-J Dixon (transfer) and freshman running back Will Shipley (leg injury) both out of the equation for now. Swinney said it will likely be at least a few weeks before Shipley returns, which will force fellow true freshman Phil Mafah into action. Swinney had hoped to be able to redshirt the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder, but the attrition has likely taken that option off the table. Mafah is listed as the No. 2 back on this week’s depth chart behind Kobe Pace.
Regardless of who’s getting handoffs, though, they’ll need more help from a line that’s clearly working through some growing pains. But just because Swinney has decided to go with a more experienced player at Tate’s position for the time being doesn’t mean he’s necessarily down on the newcomer.
Swinney compared Tate’s situation to that of one of his former kickers, Chandler Catanzaro, who made just 63% of his field goals as a freshman before leaving Clemson as the program’s all-time leading scorer and kicking five seasons in the NFL.
“We’ve got some kids that are kind of in that situation right now, that when it’s all said and done, the story is done and written, the date is on the other end of the dash and they’re out of here, they’re going to leave their mark,” Swinney said. “A kid like Marcus Tate, he’ll be as good as we’ve had roll through here. He’s going to be a great one.
“Same thing with Tchio and all these guys, these young bucks that are trying and getting their nose bloodied a little bit in the meeting room, on the practice field and in the game.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!