Clemson 2021 early look: Offensive and defensive line

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Clemson should be better on both lines of scrimmage in 2021. (Photo courtesy CUAD)
Clemson should be better on both lines of scrimmage in 2021. (Photo courtesy CUAD)

Clemson’s offensive line was tasked with replacing four starters from 2019. The results were mixed with some poor showings (e.g., Notre Dame in South Bend) and some good ones (e.g., Notre Dame in Charlotte). It’s arguably the area where Clemson needs to improve the most in 2021 and, with a lot of talent returning and an influx of top prospects, it may be poised to do just that.

On the defensive line, the Tigers faced an unlikely series of challenges and relied heavily on true freshmen last season. Fortunately, the freshmen were ready from the start and now have experience that could pay major dividends moving forward. Championships are won in the trenches so let’s dig in and take a very early look at two of the Tigers' most important position groups for 2021.

Offensive Line

Clemson is traditionally better at pass protection than run blocking, and that was the case in the extreme last season. According to PFF, the interior O-line ranked just 83rd in run-blocking. The tackle play was good, particularly right tackle Jordan McFadden. right guard Will Putnam was good in pass protection and is still a young developing prospect that could take a big step in 2021.

Left tackle Jackson Carman elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft and center Cade Stewart graduated. That means Clemson will return three starters. Tackle Walker Parks had an impressive freshman season as a reserve and appears ready to earn a starting tackle position. The open starting job in the interior line could go several different ways. Mason Trotter is the first name that comes to mind, and Swinney said he “feels good about him and what he can do.”

The competition for the spot on the interior offensive line is wide open though. Hunter Rayburn, a former 3-star prospect from Pensacola, Florida, who only played 57 snaps in 2020, seems to have taken a big step. Dabo said Rayburn is “going into his third year, and you just can see a light that’s gone on. It’s amazing what the weight room and just some time can do for some of these guys. That is a hard position.”

Matt Bockhorst, who started at left guard last season, could potentially shift to center too. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he gives the Tigers a lot of flexibility and that he could “easily be our starter (at center) if that was the move to give us the best five (starters).”

Freshman Ryan Linthicum and Tristan Leigh are top prospects with bright futures, but Swinney cautioned it was too early and unrealistic to put any sort of expectations on them to make a huge impact right away. Still, it’s hard to not be excited about their future on this offensive line.

There’s a lot of reason to be optimistic that the O-line play will improve, and it needs to if Clemson is going to improve their rushing attack. After a few spring practices, Swinney is optimistic too:

“I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen. Some of these young freshmen who the game was a little too fast for last year, they’ve got a little better demeanor and little better look in their eye right. That’s a year’s worth of experience will do for you.”

Defensive line

Clemson boasted arguably their best defensive line in school history in 2018. In 2019, they understandably took a step back with so many of them heading to the NFL. It seemed like a big leap forward was coming in 2020. Unfortunately, DE Logan Rudolph unexpectedly left Clemson a year early and then both starting defensive ends – Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas – were held back by illness. On top of that, Tyler Davis – who I contend was the single most crucial player on last year’s team – was limited with injuries. Suffice it to say, the big leap forward didn’t happen.

Is 2021 the year? Tyler Davis is back and hopefully won’t battle injuries. ACC Rookie of the Year Bryan Bresee and the D-line’s sack leader Myles Murphy now have a year under their belts after excellent true freshman seasons. With Justin Foster retiring from college football and both Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams transferring there could be some depth challenges if other players beyond those three stars don’t step up.

The most obvious player they need contributions from is Thomas. He was a big recruit who has shown flashes of his upside (his game-sealing sack against Syracuse being memorable.) but hasn’t put together that big season yet. KJ Henry, another huge recruit, stayed healthy last season and was solid but not especially disruptive. Can he take his game to the next level? DT Ruke Orhorhoro on the inside is positioned to fill the void left by Pinckney and Williams. A big year from him would help the Tigers use their depth and keep their starters fresh.

The Tigers defensive line has the potential to be elite, but they need to stay healthy and have a few players reach new heights. It’s possible… perhaps probable.

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