Freeman, offensive line ready to continue last year's good work

by - Senior Writer -

CLEMSON – Through five games last season, the Clemson football team sat at 2-3 but was coming off of a humbling loss at Maryland, and questions surrounded the offense and, as is par for the course, the offensive line.

Enter Dalton Freeman.

The native of Pelion, SC started the last nine games of the season and played 542 snaps in 13 games, earning first-team Freshman All-American's honors. Freeman was inserted into the starting lineup at center against Wake Forest [the school his father played for], and the 38-3 Tiger rout paved the way for a six-game winning streak and a trip to the ACC Championship Game.

Entering 2010, the Tigers once again have question marks on the offensive line, but Freeman says that this year’s group is light years ahead of where the offensive line was this time last season, and he expects the group to be one of the stronger units in the nation.

“We are a lot more experienced group this year, and we have four returning starters,” Freeman said. “With David Smith settling into Thomas Austin’s role, we might as well claim him as a returning starter as much as he played. I am really confident because we have that experience, we know how to communicate, and I feel like we have a good shot at being a pretty good offensive line.

“I think we’re getting there, but we’re not there yet. I know we have work to do. But the first five played really well this spring - we just have to develop some depth. Wilson Norris was having his best spring, but then he tore his ACL and that hurt us. Ben Ramsey was playing well and he got hurt. But once we get Mason Cloy and Ben back and get everybody healthy, we will have a lot of depth.”

Freeman said his insertion into the starting lineup in 2009 and the subsequent success had less to do with the physical part of the game, but more because of confidence and an understanding of what was expected.

“There was just a different confidence level,” he said. “I think when we began the year, there were so many plays and I had to prepare for multiple looks, and I just wasn’t there yet. But by the middle of the year, I knew all of the calls, and I could identify the fronts and set protections. I got more confident as we went along, but in the beginning, I wasn’t ready for all of that.”

And this spring?

“This spring, I don’t even have to think about it, it’s just second-hand nature to me,” he said. “Last spring, I didn’t know anything, and I was starting from scratch. This spring was very different for me, and really for the rest of the offensive line. I think we are ready to get after it. I feel pretty good about this offensive line.”

Offensive line coach Brad Scott agreed with Freeman’s assessment, and said that this spring has had a different feel to it than past springs.

“I actually feel pretty good about our first group for sure, and that is not always the case after spring ball,” Scott said. “It seems like there are always first-time starters, and you have questions about how they’ll perform. But I know how these guys are going to do in the fall. David Smith is our one new starter, but he was our most improved player in the spring.

“It is great to be ahead of where we were a year ago and two years ago. Last year, we really only had one or two guys that we could count on, but this year we’ve got five for sure, and six when we get Mason Cloy back. You add in a couple of these younger guys, who will play a lot, especially early, this year, and it looks pretty good.”

All-everything tackle Chris Hairston, the true physical anchor of the line, said the key for any offensive line success won’t lie with the first six, but getting the guys beyond that ready to play.

“I think this will be a special offensive line this year,” Hairston said. “We have six really good players, and now we are looking for guys to step up and be numbers seven and eight and maybe nine. The thing this spring was trying to get 7-8-9 better and get them to step up and make the team better. I loved the way they came on toward the end of spring.”

Scott, tackles coach Danny Pearman and offensive coordinator Billy Napier spent much of the spring getting redshirt freshman Brandon Thomas, redshirt junior Phillip Price and true freshman Kalon Davis as much work as possible, and Freeman said it is imperative that the group make even more strides during the summer.

“If we get Mason back, we can be pretty impressive,” Freeman said. “But we need to develop depth, because we are just one injury away from having to play a true freshman. So this summer, these guys need to get ready, and it will be up to us older guys to take them under our wings and show them the ropes.”

Walker agreed with Freeman and said the summer will tell whether the offensive line is ready to take the leap into elite status.

“With our starting five, I am confident that myself and the four other guys can be among the best in the nation,” Walker said. “If we stay healthy, we can be a really good front. But it’s all about the summer – getting Phillip and Brandon to where they can come in and play 15-to-30 snaps a game and give breathers where needed. They just need to develop, but we will be a salty bunch when we get them developed.”

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