Tigers look for consistency up front

CLEMSON – Entering this season, one of the constants for Clemson's offensive line was experience.

Two-time Rimington Award finalist Dalton Freeman was the only loss from a line that paved the way for 512.7 total yards and 41 points per game in 2012.

Entering the third game of 2013, however, continuity is a legitimate concern. With what should be a hostile, loud Thursday night environment at N.C. State ahead, the Tigers' starting five has played only one full game together.

Senior right guard Tyler Shatley is returning from plantar fasciitis that sidelined him in a 52-13 win over South Carolina State. And those starters who did play against the Bulldogs received limited snaps due to the game's lopsided nature: all first-teamers took between 27-32 snaps.

"We've got to be able to get some continuity and get into a flow of the game with all of them," Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Monday. "That's what I'm hoping to get out of this game, get these guys in there and get going." Are the Tigers' linemen concerned? Not especially. In their eyes, the improved line depth outweighs concerns over consistency together.

"It's pretty important," Shatley said of continuity. "You want to be able to gel with everybody. I think we all play better when we're working well together.

"But it's nice to have that depth we didn't have last year, Kalon stepped in last week and did a great job. It's very reassuring especially after seeing our second-string line went in there and played just as well. So it's nice to have that depth and continuity in the offensive line."

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney intentionally tested that depth against S.C. State. Before the game, he told his offense that the second-string line would play the third offensive series. Even though Clemson led only 3-0, he stuck to his mindset.

That line led a seven-play, 57-yard touchdown drive that covered 2:08, an excellent confidence-builder.

Two years ago, the offensive line backups – several of whom are now the starters – didn't inspire such confidence at N.C. State.

Senior left tackle Phillip Price, a rock of that line, watched with a strained knee ligament, shuffling the line: then-sophomore left guard Brandon Thomas moved over to left tackle and struggled, allowing multiple sacks and penetration that led to a Tajh Boyd fumble inside the Clemson 10.

"I'd been practicing at that time, basically for a short period of time, and came in and tried to play to the best of my ability," Thomas said. "It didn't work out. Later on, I think I progressed." Making matters worse, fifth-year senior right tackle Landon Walker, the Tigers' most experienced lineman, left with a knee injury, forcing redshirt freshman Gifford Timothy into the fray.

The results weren't pretty: a 37-13 Clemson defeat that featured four turnovers. The Tigers had just 34 yards rushing and finished 2-of-14 on third down.

"Our strategy wasn't all that (great) as a whole," Thomas said. "We didn't feel like we played to the best of our abilities. They were better than us that day. But we learned a lot from that game and that helped us to where we are now."

Two years later, that backup line – left tackle Isaiah Battle, Davis, center Jay Guillermo, right guard Reid Webster and right tackle Shaq Anthony – has gained some more trust.

Still, Morris pushed the first-string line hard during last week's open date, with physical practices that he said "strained them and taxed them in some areas to see how they would respond."

"I think we had a really good practice this past week," Thomas said. "During our bye week, we had tough practice, and I think that's what we needed, considering the games we had before. But I think we're progressing along well going into the game."

For a line learning how to play together with Norton in the middle, that's just what they needed.

"I think we'll be fine," Shatley said. "Last week in practice we did a lot of work against our defense, and that really helps, and we can work on tempo during practice. We had a lot of periods in practice specifically for our tempo, and once we go against our defense, that's our main goal. To go as fast as we can and execute in a game situation. We're working hard in that regard."

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