CLEMSON — It wasn't that guys like Antoine McClain, Mason Cloy, David Smith and Landon Walker were not ready to play physical, it was just mentally they were not.
The game plan for the four Clemson freshmen was to bring them along slowly with some playing time here and there early on. That way they would be ready to be solid contributors when the ACC season heated up later in the season.
It seemed like a pretty reasonable plan. The key to it, however, was keeping the starters healthy.
Everyone knows how that turned out.
Guard Barry Humphries injured his knee against Alabama in the season opener and then trying to come back to help the team he tore his ACL after 23 plays against Georgia Tech six weeks later. Jamarcus Grant started the season before inconsistent play and injuries limited his playing time.
A freak moped accident after The Citadel game forced Chris Hairston down for all but 10 plays in three games at left tackle and then a concussion after 16 plays at Florida State forced him to miss the rest of that game and most of the Duke game the next week.
Then while trying to fill in for Humphries at right guard, Smith injured his foot against South Carolina State and played just 14 snaps the rest of the season. He played in just three of the last nine games. Cloy also took a step back when he was injured at Wake Forest and missed most of the next two games because of it.
All of this led to seven different lineups in eight weeks. It affected the continuity, skill set and more importantly their confidence.
"We were in a situation last year where we had a lot of youth and they were not sure of themselves and when you are not sure of yourself, you play a little slow and don't have the execution that you are getting now," Clemson guards and tackles coach Brad Scott said. "McClain is a great example and so is Cloy. All of those kids are playing better."
All of those guys are not only playing better, but they are playing with more confidence than they had at any point last season.
"I thought we did well and answered a lot of questions," left guard Thomas Austin said. "We had a lot of good competition and that will help us up front. We still have a long ways to go, but it was a beneficial spring for us."
Despite being confident, head coach Dabo Swinney has noticed how tough his offensive front has become. They have proven that in all put one scrimmage thus far, while controlling the line of scrimmage in two of them.
"Last year we played five linemen that have never played before," Swinney said. "They took their first snap last year, and now they have all played. This time last year, they did not have a clue as to what it was all about, but now they do.
"They understand how to meet better. They have a good foundation as far schematically and things like that, and they are stronger and more mature and are a little more confident. They have had success and they have had failure.
"All of those things combine and I think Coach (Danny) Pearman has helped coming in there and those guys are buying in. That is a prideful group. They don't like people talking bad about them. They want to be good. We have the right guys, but we have to get them better and they are working hard to get there."
The offensive line is getting there because there appears to be more depth than in years past thanks to the emergence of young guys like Dalton Freeman and true freshman J.K. Jay. Both are pushing others to work harder and to get better or lose their jobs.
Freeman has worked his way into the rotation at center with Cloy and will enter the summer with a shot at the starting job. Though Jay isn't pushing to start, he has worked his way into possible playing time at tackle, especially if he can keep up his progress.
He was elevated to second-team tackle earlier in the week.
Smith has come back from injury and appears to be himself again and is challenging for playing time at the guard positions and Humphries is expected to be back to full strength in the fall and should be ready to go as well.
"Smith has come on at guard so we have a third guard that I feel comfortable with and the fact that we get Humphries back will be a plus inside," Scott said. "J.K. Jay is a high school player that came in here and he has definitely improved. He had his best practice when he did not know anything about what he was doing and was just coming off the ball.
"Then we put the offense in, and you have to check this and check that and this call and that call then he slowed down. It was very similar to the freshmen last year. He will give us some depth and will be competing for some playing time possibly. If he has a good camp, then he might be a guy that we will play next year."
With more depth, the addition of the three-point stance, plus the coaches have made a point to make their offensive and defensive fronts more physical this spring, Clemson could be a more physical and cohesive unit this year.
"That's what this game is about. It is about being physical," Swinney said. "The bottom line that it ultimately comes down to is you either whip the guy on you or he whips you. That is really what it boils down to.
"Hopefully we have done something in practice to hopefully create that mentality. I'm pleased with what they are doing."
O-line is deeper, more physical
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