Battle tested?

SUNSET, S.C. – Robbie Caldwell has a motto in his Clemson offensive line meeting room: the best five start.

This explains why, despite losing only All-America and All-ACC center Dalton Freeman to graduation from a line that paved the way for 512.7 yards of total offense per game last fall (ninth-best nationally), there is plenty of room for upheaval on the Tigers' offensive front in 2013.

And it starts with one of the line's most stable members: returning first-team All-ACC senior left tackle Brandon Thomas.

Caldwell, the Tigers' third-year offensive line coach, would love to see sophomore Isaiah Battle claim the position for himself, allowing Thomas to move inside and strengthen the guard rotation.

The question is: will Battle improve enough to make it happen? It hasn't happened yet, but preseason practice is still just over two weeks from opening.

"Ideally, that'd give us more flexibility," Caldwell said of Battle's emergence. "My first year here (2011), Brandon played guard and had to fill in there for us. We don't know how long it will take. We'd hoped in the spring Isaiah might be able to step up. He didn't quite get that accomplished. He's got some work to do."

Battle is listed at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, and Caldwell said he'd like to see more bulk. It's not as easy as it sounds, though.

"I'd like to have seen him have a better summer, putting on weight. He hasn't," Caldwell said. "Don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean he can't do it. Isaiah loves to play basketball, he'll run his weight off pretty quickly. He has strong upper body strength. He can match most people in the group. He's very good at upper body strength. You'd just like him to have a little more bulk about him. And obviously the knowledge… he has to spend time in the summer, I can't be with them. So they have to teach each other, being committed to doing those things."

Battle performed well in Clemson's Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU after right tackle Gifford Timothy's knee injury forced a reshuffling of the line. Initially, coaches tried Joe Gore in place of Timothy, but the offense worked best with Thomas at right tackle and Battle protecting Tajh Boyd's blind side.

"Your younger ones don't believe cow horns will hook you till it happens. It's kind of like Isaiah getting thrown into the bowl game, it was culture shock for him," Caldwell said. "The speed of the game, oh my goodness, they're moving around, they're not just sitting still – what do I do? He's got to mature in football.

"He did very well. When he was targeted correctly, physical was not the problem. It's just the mental aspect of the game. LSU was sending them from the stands and everywhere. You've really got to know what you're doing."

That's not the only move Caldwell could make, though. He says Gore is "in the mix," adding that Timothy could even move inside. Most important, however, is maximizing Thomas' potential.

"(In the Chick-fil-A Bowl) he was a little rusty, but he can do it, he's so athletic," Caldwell said of Thomas. "I want to be fair to him, I want him to be comfortable, because I want him to have a great season, too. But it will benefit his future for everyone, for us and his, at the next level, to know multiple aspects of the game up front. He could play guard, he could play right tackle."

Even Ryan Norton or Jay Guillermo – currently battling at center – could find a home at guard.

"They had a great battle in the spring, really did good," Caldwell said. "Both ran the first unit. Ryan being the older, more experienced playing wise, he did a really good job there. If we started tomorrow, you'd probably pencil him in at that position, but Jay Guillermo will not go away. He's bound and determined, he wants to be on that field. That's what I love about him. He loves the game, he works at it, loves the weight room. He's going to compete. One of those two could play guard as well."

In a perfect world, Caldwell would play 10 linemen per game – a first and second unit – with the second unit getting 15-20 plays per game, allowing the first-team line ample rest in Chad Morris' fast-paced system.

Doing so takes knowledge, which Caldwell says is the key to any successful line and improving from 2012's highly successful group.

"It's just experience," he said. "People say, how hard is it to learn? It's not hard to learn on paper, on the chalkboard. It's when defenders start moving, things change. They can move a foot, six inches one way or the other and things can change. We've got to be on the same page, and that's why Brandon and Tyler and Giff, you like to get that steady guy with you. Everything we do, we work in pairs. One is on an island because there's five of us. In the spring, we had some class conflicts. Brandon was student-teaching, he's a graduate as well, it had to be done. He missed a day. It's good in one sense, you've got a guy who gets a few more reps, but you lose that continuity of five of you working together as one. We missed a bit of that in the spring because of some different situations that were going on, because when you get guys like Tyler (Shatley) and Brandon, they've got to have these courses to graduate. It was good and bad."

What will the starting five look like against Georgia Aug. 31? If Caldwell's comments are any indication, stay tuned.

"There's a lot of ideal situations," he said, "that we can create."

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