Considering it's almost mid-July, most college football fans have pretty much read every preseason magazine under the sun. When discussing the Tigers, most read something like this, "If Clemson can get decent play from its inexperienced offensive line the Tigers are the cream of the crop in the ACC." Considering the talent returning at every other position, it's that's true- but what does it mean? Could the Tigers have a bad offensive line and win the ACC considering all the talent returning at running back, quarterback and wide receiver? In a word- no. Cullen Harper needs time to throw the ball and James Davis and C.J. Spiller need at least small holes to run through to consistently establish the running game. In fact, if you want to look to one of the reasons Clemson didn't win the ACC last year, start with the 35 sacks given up, most of which, but not all, are pinned on the O-line. This year the line has to give Cullen Harper a little bit longer to survey the field while also getting more physical at the point of attack when it comes to run-blocking. And speaking of run-blocking, the line also has to be good enough in short-yardage situations to where offensive coordinator Rob Spence has the confidence needed to call a running play on 3rd-and-2 and Harper has the confidence enough to stay in the play once the team is at the line of scrimmage. The line doesn't have to be great, but it can't be bad and it has to play better collectively than what it did a year ago to win the conference.
#4. Is Thomas Austin really the only proven commodity among the starting five linemen?
While it's true Austin is the only one returning who started all 12 games of the 2007 season, OG Barry Humphries, OT Cory Lambert and OT Chris Hairston all started at least one game and Humphries actually started seven. Humphries also improved his play considerably after making the transition from starting center to reserve guard. Meanwhile Hairston started in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Auburn and more than held his own against one of the nation's top defenses. Lambert still has work to do and could hold one of the biggest keys to the development of this year's line. Austin has clearly proven himself as one of the top centers in the league and Hairston was called one of the top linemen Clemson has ever signed by head coach Tommy Bowden during spring practice. Humphries has improved enough to be thrown into the conversation- but after that, no proven commodities are available. Jamarcus Grant and Bobby Hutchinson have been career backups, alternating between the second and third teams, and that should continue this season as well.
While proven commodities are short in supply, young talent certainly is not. A foursome of redshirt freshman will compete for a spot on the two-deep next month including C Mason Cloy, OG David Smith, OG Wilson Norris and OT Landon Walker. Three of the four were slotted in various starting spots this spring, some due to performance others because of injury. As it stands right now, don't be surprised if Norris or Smith claims one of the starting guard spots sooner rather than later. Smith is explosive thanks to a strong lower body and is also deceivingly big (6-5, 300) but he needs to be more consistent in his pass blocking to claim a starting spot. Norris knocked off about 25-30 pounds since arriving on campus last year at 330 pounds and will remind many fans of former guard Nathan Bennett with his play on the field. In addition, Cloy, who offensive line coach Brad Scott called one of his "top guard prospects" is easily the top backup center and he's also squarely in the mix for the starting right guard spot with Humphries as well. Walker figures to be in the mix for the two deep at tackle, but where he settles in won't be officially known until preseason camp gets underway but he'll likely back up Chris Hairston.
#2. Does true freshman Antoine McClain fit in the picture anywhere?
You bet he does. The massive McClain, the No. 9 tackle prospect in the nation in the 2008 class according to Scout.com, will remind Clemson fans of some of the nasty offensive linemen of yesteryear. He has the size, ability and mindset to come in and compete for a spot on the two-deep as a true freshman and given Clemson's lack of proven talent at tackle, he could very well see significant action in his first game on Aug. 30 against his home-state team, Alabama. Deemed by Tommy Bowden as the most gifted lineman Clemson has signed in his 10 years with the program, McClain will turn heads the minute he steps on the practice field next month and should factor in the two deep as a true freshman.
#1. How long will it take for this unit to come together?
Not surprisingly this is the million dollar question surrounding the success of Clemson football entering the 2008 season. While the line can't be bad all season and have the Tigers win the ACC, it can go through growing pains and still claim the league crown because the schedule allows it. After opening up with Alabama in the Georgia Dome, the next four games are all at home against teams the Tigers will be heavy favorites- The Citadel, N.C. State, S.C. State and Maryland. Regardless of what happens in the season opener, Brad Scott can tinker with his starting five through the month of September to help find the most cohesive unit he'll need to give Clemson the best chance of winning the conference. Given the talent available, the line should be settled by Oct. 1 with Clemson sitting at worst 4-1, possibly 5-0. Yes, the Tigers will be favored to beat Alabama to open the season, but if the line proves to be an enormous obstacle and is a contributing factor in a loss, it's not the end of the world. Also keep in mind there are two factors working in the O-line's favor- 1) Remember these young linemen will be facing stiff competition throughout preseason camp in having to go against one of the ACC's top defensive lines. That's excellent practice before starting the season. 2) It's not like these guys are oblivious to what is being said about them. If I'm Thomas Austin or Chris Hairston or whoever, I'm getting a little tired of hearing how me and my teammates could be the main reason the Tigers don't win the league.