Countdown to Camp: The Offensive Line

We conclude our Countdown to Camp series by looking indepth at the Tigers' offensive line. If there is one area that should concern you on paper- this is likely it. Clemson will return only one starter from last year's squad, but several reserves from last season could become impact players.

While the Tigers have had their pick of the litter at the skill positions over the last few years, the offensive line has yet to take the spotlight when it comes to recruiting.

Entering the 2002 season, Clemson will only return one starter on the offensive line- senior tackle Gary Byrd. The Tigers lost All-America center Kyle Young, three-year starter T.J. Watkins, second-team All-ACC guard Will Merritt, and second-team All-ACC tackle Akil Smith.

"We've played with the same center ever since I've been here," Tommy Bowden said. "Jermyn Chester is the starter right now with Cedric Johnson behind him. We've got some experience at tackle so my concern is mainly on the inside."

Jermyn Chester is a redshirt junior who has significant experience at both guard and center over the course of his Clemson career. Overall, he has played 164 plays in seven games over the last three years. However- he has had numerous injuries- playing in just 26 snaps in three games a year ago and 138 snaps in four games as a freshman. Chester has some talent, and he also has decent quickness off the line of scrimmage.

If he can stay healthy, and that's a big if considering his track record, then he could be in a position to have a breakout season. It all boils down to staying injury free for Chester.

Backing Chester up at center will be Cedric Johnson. Johnson was a reserve offensive guard in 2001 that played in 11 of 12 games, but he's coming off a knee injury that limited his play in the spring. With a good showing this fall, he command serious playing time with Chester, and even if he can't manage a first team spot- he'll see significant action. Overall, Johnson is bigger than Chester, and he also moves fairly well off the line of scrimmage.

Chip Myrick is another name you might not want to forget as a backup center or guard. Myrick is as intense as they come on the football field, and the coaching staff loves his overall quickness and footwork. Watching him in practice makes you wonder why he consistently listed in the two deep depth chart.

At left tackle, Gary Bryd returns as the lone starter from last season. Byrd has played 1121 career snaps on offense and many more on special teams in his career that is now in its fifth year.

He finished last season with consecutive double-digit knockdown-block games, including 10 knockdowns in the Louisiana Tech game and 12 in the regular finale with Duke. He had 10 starts overall in 2001 and now has 14 for his career, averaging 61 plays per game for the 2001 season.

Backing up Byrd will be William Henry. Henry played in three games for 42 snaps last year, including 16 in the Humanitarian Bowl. He also played against Duke and North Carolina and was named to academic honor roll for 1999-00. The big lineman has experience as a guard and tackle at Clemson.

Derrick Brantley, a junior college transfer who came on late in the 2001 season, will be the starter at right tackle.

The big offensive lineman has quick feet and the strength to be one of the top offensive linemen in the ACC this year. He played in every game in 2001, averaging 30 snaps per contest. He also saw a season high 60 snaps against Louisiana Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl.

"Whether we throw it or run it, a lot is on the shoulders of the offensive line. Our two tackles have some playing experience," said Tommy Bowden. "But Nick Black, Jermyn Chester, Cedric Johnson, Greg Walker and Mark Jetton are all young guys who haven't played very much."

At right guard, Nick Black enters fall practice as the starter. Black improved tremendously this offseason, as he was named the most improved offensive lineman of spring practice.

Black has seen some action on the field, but mostly in form of special teams due to several knee injuries over the course of the last 3 years. Last season, he played in all 12 games, but he only saw action for 36 plays from scrimmage. 22 of his 36 snaps came in wins over Duke and Louisiana Tech to end the season.

Backing up Black will be Nathan Gillespie. Gillespie is a reserve offensive lineman who has experience as a guard, tight end and tackle in his Clemson career. Nathan was a reserve tackle in 2001 who played in five games and saw 44 snaps of action. He played a season high 15 plays against Louisiana Tech in the bowl game.

At the other guard, Greg Walker will likely get the call on the first team. Walker is one of the strongest players on the team, but he also struggles off the line of scrimmage against the faster guys in the interior.

Walker has great size at 6-5, 315+ pounds, and he was named the most improved offensive lineman in the weight room this past spring, but he'll need to work on his footwork and overall quickness to get the job done this fall.

His progression during the early part of August could be critical in determining how good or bad this offensive line will be this season.

Backing up Walker will be Mark Jetton. Jetton is a quick offensive lineman who has made the move from tight end to offensive guard. Currently listed as the second team behind Greg Walker heading into the 2002 season. He joins Chip Myrick and Charlie Whitehurst as the only red-shirt freshmen on the offensive two-deep for the Tigers entering the fall.

"They've (offensive line) made good progress in the spring, but we can't really evaluate that until we play a game and we see how we hold up in the middle," said Tommy Bowden after the spring game. That simple fact leaves a lot of question marks entering fall practice. If the offensive line can stay injury free, and the interior guys can step it up a notch- there shouldn't be a great deal of concern.

However, if someone like Gary Byrd or Derrick Brantley goes down, and/or guys like Walker can't improve, - the Tigers could be in trouble. It certainly is an area to watch in August.

The wildcard on the offensive line may be incoming freshman Dustin Fry. Fry has incredible strength and he has been going through intense workout sessions throughout the summer.

"Physically, I'm strong enough right now to make the two deep. If I had to, I definitely think I could step in and play," Fry said. "I want to come in an make a impact, and my goal is make the two deep as a freshmen. I don't want to be a redshirt junior just stepping onto the field for the first time."

Nathan Bennett, Roman Fry, Tim DeBeer, and Brad Lee are three other freshman that will get the chance to prove themselves on the practice fields beginning next week. Bennett, along with Fry have the best chance of avoiding a redshirt.

Roman Fry may be the most underrated recruit coming in the 2002 class. While he may only be 260 lbs right now, he has the frame to grow considerably during hit college career. He's one to watch over the course of the next few years.

The offensive line likely holds the key to this season for the Clemson Tigers. With concerns about depth and personnel entering fall practice, it will become imperative for this unit to gel, and gel quickly. All the talent in the world at the skill positions won't mean a whole lot if they don't have time to operate. Top Stories