Monday Morning QB: OL Issues Costly
Yet through all of the change, through all of the supposed improvement in the game, one constant has remained:
Whether a team runs the spread or the wishbone, or defensively plays zone or press-man, the game is still won and lost in the trenches.
It seems so simple, yet sometimes the very idea is difficult to grasp. We love the flash and dash of the C.J. Spillers and Jacoby Fords of the world, yet if the guys up front don't open holes or protect the quarterback their speed and skills are about as useful as Otis Campbell's drivers license.
This has never been more evident at Clemson than in two games this season - the lid-lifter vs. Alabama, and Saturday at Florida State.
The Seminoles simply dominated the Tigers at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, almost to the point of embarrassment. Quarterback Cullen Harper was hit, sacked and harassed so often by the FSU defense that he could be forgiven for considering defecting.
That Clemson was still even in a position to try and recover an onside kick, down only one score, late in the game is a testament to how hard Dabo Swinney's team played the game from start to finish.
But score aside, the Tigers were physically manhandled by the Seminoles. And until the line issues on both sides of the ball are reconciled, it doesn't matter who is coaching this team.
If you can't block, you can't win.
Much of the fans' anger is being hurled in the direction of offensive line coach Brad Scott. But the vitriol is misdirected.
The real source of the problem lies in Tommy Bowden's inability to recruit, then build, a consistent offensive line.
Most know the belief here that, for the most part, Bowden did great things for Clemson. The fact that he couldn't get over that last hurdle - winning an ACC Championship - doesn't change the fact that the program was in monumentally better shape when he left than when he arrived. On virtually every level.
But the main criticism from this end, beyond the lack of a championship, is the inability to consistently recruit and build a dominant offensive line.
If you look at Bowden's nine-plus years on the job, his best offensive line class was the one which consisted of the Fry boys - Roman and Dustin - and Nathan Bennett. Add Barry Richardson in there a year or so later, and it was a group that was together for at least four years (some of them five), and provided a solid nucleus up front. Particularly in their final two years in the program.
Swings and misses going after nationally sought-after linemen which, during one interview on my show in his second or third season, prompted Bowden to admit they had made philosophical errors in recruiting linemen. He said the staff at the time recognized the shortcomings, and had switched tactics in hopes of rectifying the situation.
The next class that came in was the one mentioned above, followed by Richardson.
As that group matured, it became a very good - if not great - offensive line. There were other issues which cost Clemson games in those years, but by and large the offensive lines of 2005 and 2006 - the final two years for those in that recruiting class - were very good.
Since then, the star ratings for offensive line recruits have increased. But the performance has not.
And to be fair, we don't know exactly how good this young line may have become this season because of the incredible rash of injuries which has taken its toll on them individually and collectively.
But beyond that lies another issue. Scheme.
Those criticizing Scott's coaching abilities fail to grasp the concept that as a good soldier, he's simply doing what he was told.
Bowden and Rob Spence wanted a particular blocking style for their offense, and wanted the linemen in a two-point stance because it fit better with their offensive philosophy. So, Brad Scott coaches them to perform out of a two-point stance. This even though his background and track record show he's been more successful with linemen in a three-point stance.
The head coach is the one who sets the parameters. The assistants then do what the head coach dictates within those parameters.
Bowden's recruiting classes got better and better during his time here, especially after ground was broken on the West End Zone. And his collection of players at the skill positions was impressive, to say the least.
But outside of a few exceptions, the offensive line never performed consistently. And that proved to be his greatest failure.
All the speed in the world means nothing if it can't get out of the starting blocks.
And whether the next coach is Dabo Swinney or Devon Dudley, the No. 1 priority must be fixing the offensive line.
After that, everything else will fall into place.
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