Clemson's biggest weakness the last few years has been its offensive line. There are not very many people - including Tommy Bowden - that would argue that point. Bowden inherited very little talent at those positions and missed out on some players during the recruiting process his first few years. More of an emphasis has been put on recruiting offensive linemen the last couple of years and the same efforts will continue this year. As Clemson fans know all to well, last year's offensive line may have been the biggest disappointment thanks to injuries and a dismissal. Akil Smith was scheduled to start, but was dismissed from the team the previous winter after facing drug charges. Another starter, Nick Black, suffered a horrific leg injury during the FSU game that ultimately ended his career. Finally, the team’s best lineman, Derrick Brantley, suffered a season ending knee injury against Louisiana Tech. Bowden has since said he regrets not playing some of the younger lineman, but fans should be thankful. Redshirting is the best thing most offensive linemen can do because very few are physically prepared to play their first year. His decision will pay off down the road.
Everyone knows that it is very beneficial for a lineman to have great strength and size. More times than not, the biggest and strongest players on a team are the offensive linemen. What a lot of people do not realize is that they must be like a good heavyweight boxer in that good footwork and quick hands may be their most important assets. EVERYTHING an offensive lineman does starts with his feet. The quickness a lineman needs in order to excel is a direct result of great footwork. Forty times rarely matter for these guys. Instead, their speed within the first three to five yards is what should be judged. It is in these first few steps that a good offensive lineman may be as quick as anyone on the team. Coaches stress a wide base and steps that make it appear as if they are literally pounding the ground in daily drills. Whether getting upfield to block a linebacker or establishing a pocket for the quarterback, these short, forceful steps allow them to take the proper angles and give them a good base off which they set themselves. In regards to their hands, linemen are at a disadvantage because they cannot legally use them to grab and hold. Rather, he has to use his hands to get those of a defensive player off of him. Just as a defensive lineman is taught to get his hands onto the offensive lineman and grab the jersey, an offensive lineman is taught to counteract them by swiping and knocking away the defender's hands.
The tough part of pass protection is keeping a "squared" position. This means they need to keep their shoulders and hips parallel to the line of scrimmage as they set up. This squared position allows them to move laterally and shut off an inside rusher. Forcing a rusher to go outside is what helps form a pocket that gives a quarterback room to work. Unless it's a 3-step drop or play action pass, a lineman should not fire off on the snap of the ball. Going forward on a pass play means that more often than not a lineman will face the task of having to race the defensive player to the quarterback. That is a race they will rarely win. As opposed to initiating contact, the lineman must let the defender make his move and react to it. In what could be defined as a passive aggressive approach, the lineman wants to let his man come to him while being aggressive enough at the point of contact so that he does not "catch" the defender. Once the lineman has engaged a block, it is a must that he keeps his back straight and his neck bowed. This helps him maintain a good center of gravity and, thus, keeps him from leaning. If an offensive lineman leans, he better hope the quarterback is going to get rid of the ball very quickly. Otherwise, he is beaten and the quarterback is on the verge of having his head ripped off.
Run blocking shares some of the basics of pass blocking like keeping the shoulders square and low, a straight back, and head up. What is different is the lineman must be extremely explosive on the snap of the ball. Any hesitation means the defender is going to win. There are a number of different blocks one must learn. The key with all of them is proper steps and angles. This puts the lineman in a position get underneath the defender's shoulder pad and explode through the block by generating power from the hips. This explosion allows the lineman to bring his hands up and through the armpit area of his man and drive him as he "legally" holds him. Besides good steps and a solid base, there is nothing very fancy about run blocking. More than anything, it is attitude that wins these battles.
To borrow a very bad cliché, this guy is the quarterback of the line. The men manning this position will be Tommy Sharpe (6'0", 280 - R/Jr.) and Dustin Fry (6'2, 319 - R/Fr.). Sharpe is a former walk-on that started the last 4 games of the season and led the team in knockdown blocks during that time. There is nothing flashy about this undersized guy. Hard work and determination are what makes him get out of the bed each morning. After all, his favorite athletes are Bill Romanowski and Pete Rose. He counters his deficiencies with excellent form and great lower body strength. His 615 lb. squat is second best on the team and it helps him battle guys much bigger. Despite what his detractors say, he has earned the right to start and should be a solid performer this year. Coaches are counting on him to be one of the leaders along the line.
Fry is one of the freshmen that must meet the lofty expectations of fans and coaches. He has the perfect center/guard build and all the strength in the world to go along with it. He will push Sharpe in a competition that will only make both of them much better. He is versatile and smart enough to play both positions and he may see time at guard throughout the season. It will be hard to keep him off the field and the coaches will not think twice about lining him up beside Sharpe. The one thing he needs to work on - as do most linemen - is his flexibility. He will be a good one before he leaves Clemson.
As it stands, there appear to be three guys that will make up the guard rotation: Cedric Johnson (6'4, 318 - R/Jr.), Chip Myrick (6'4", 290 - R/So.), and Nathan Bennett (6'5", 312 - R/Fr.). Johnson is the starter on the left side after playing in 12 of the 13 games last season. He is the strongest player on the team with a Clemson record 530 lb. bench press. He has shown his versatility by playing both guard and tackle in games and taking snaps at center during practice. He has constantly battled his weight since coming to Clemson and continues to do so. He has good form and technique when he is able to get his weight to the right level. If he can stay in the 315 lb. range, he will be a very good player.
After being named the starter in the spring, Bennett has fallen to second team as a result of a minor hip injury and the increased level of play exhibited by Myrick. Myrick reported to camp at a solid 290 lbs. and really surprised the staff with his size and conditioning. He has played both tackle and guard during his career. Once he is back to 100%, the prevailing thought is that Bennett will regain the starting position. The coaches love his size, ability, and especially his attitude. He has a mean streak that drives him to compete at the highest level. His on-field attitude is what any coach loves to see in an offensive lineman. Both players have solid technique and good size. Both have worked hard to improve their strength and size. The fact that they are battling for the starting slot is a very good thing and something Clemson has not had in a few years. Do not be surprised if you see both players on the field at the same time during the season. (Side note: Dustin Fry has practiced at guard in the past and can easily make the move if any of the three suffers an injury.)
William Henry (6'4", 295 - Gr.) and Roman Fry (6'4", 285 - R/Fr.) will line up at left tackle. Henry is the starter after stepping in for Derrick Brantley last year and earning 1st-team Academic All-ACC last year. He played every snap in nine games last season as he was on the field more than any other player. He has good size and technique and looks to build on last year's efforts. He will be one of the offensive leaders. Fry has worked extremely hard in the weight room as exhibited by his 600 lb. Squat, that is third best on the team. The coaches love his attitude and willingness to learn. He will be a solid backup and will be the third tackle in the rotation. Left tackle is considered by many to be the most important position on the line because he has to defend Whitehurst's blind side.
Greg Walker (6'5", 325 - Gr.) is the starter on the right side and he will be backed up by Tim DeBeer ( 6'6", 295 - R/Fr.) and Brad Lee (6'4", 275 R/Fr.). Walker is one of the most experienced Tigers in terms of snaps played and should be a stalwart on the offensive line. He played every snap in seven games last season and is the only offensive lineman to play in 3 bowl games. He is a great role model on and off the field and will be looked at as a leader by the coaches. DeBeer had a good summer after dislocating his ankle in the spring. He has gotten much bigger and stronger since arriving and should provide solid depth for coach Ron West. Lee needs to add more size and get a little stronger before he becomes a major factor on the line. He will more than likely use this year as a learning experience and will be expected to battle for a starting slot in 2004.
Bobby Williamson (6'3", 250 - R/So.) enters the season as the starter. He showed good hands and blocking ability while playing 312 snaps last season. His moment of glory came against Georgia Tech as he had a touchdown reception just before the half when Willie Simmons improvised and literally pitched the ball to him. He continues to improve his blocking as he has grown into a reliable performer. His backups will be Kevin Burnette (6'3", 240 - Sr.) and Ben Hall (6'5", 250 - Jr.). Burnette saw very little action last year as a blocking tight end in short yardage sets. His work ethic on and off the field has put him in a position to contribute more this year. He will be used more as a blocker than a receiver. Hall, the former high school all-American, had some off the field issues during the off-season that left his status in doubt for some time. He has since returned to the team. Even though he reported somewhat out of shape, he has the ability to be a very good tight end once he gets into playing shape. He is the only player to have a touchdown reception in the last two bowls and one of a small number of players to start those games. He is an excellent receiver that must improve his blocking skills. The tight ends do figure to play a larger role this season as the offense looks to feature more I-formation sets.
Marion Dukes (6'4", 295 - Fr.), Brandon Pilgrim (6'5", 285 - Fr.), and Zack Green (6'6", 240 - Fr.) all have a chance to provide depth this year. Dukes and Pilgrim have surprised everyone in the preseason with their size and technique. Pilgrim, who played on one of the best high school offensive lines in Georgia (Parkview) last year, is the most fundamentally sound of all the freshmen. Injuries and the rate at which he adapts to the speed of the game will play a role in whether or not he sees the field this year. Dukes is one of the strongest freshmen to come to Clemson in some time. He is raw, but has picked up the schemes and techniques very well. Green has been the quietest surprise of camp. He came in a little bigger than the coaches remembered and has shown the ability to be a good receiver. Again, the speed of the game and the ability to block consistently are what he has to improve upon if he wants to avoid a redshirt. After reporting to Clemson during the middle of the summer, coaches thought Chris Capote (6'5", 290) may be the freshman with the best opportunity to play, but a minor foot injury has slowed his progress. There is still a chance he could play a role as a backup, but he is more likely a candidate for a redshirt at this point.
This group will be the most looked at on the team by fans and coaches. There is a lot of pressure on these guys to perform after letting everyone down the last two years. There appears to be a lot of size and talent, but not as much depth as Bowden would like. Depth and ability have improved from last year, and this class of redshirt freshmen and freshmen show a lot of promise. Ron West's job will be easier this year with the addition of Kyle Young as a graduate assistant. Young adds a great deal in terms of experience and being able to relate to the players. After going through a spring in which they were "toughened up" through a focus on the running game, these guys look to improve tremendously in short yardage situations. There is more of a take-no-prisoners attitude that should give Whitehurst and the backs more confidence in what they can expect come August 30th. If the key injuries suffered last year can be avoided, they could be the group that shows the biggest turnaround from previous seasons. The competition throughout the line is something fans have not heard about in a couple of years, and it is a good sign for this season and seasons to come. The increased intensity, size, and strength of the line should give fans a reason to be cautiously optimistic.
2003 Position Analysis Articles