Initially there was comfort in the raw numbers, three instead of two.
Dabo Swinney could not afford to waste a season of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington hoping that this promising group of offensive lineman would take root in time for autumn harvest.
Having senior Dalton Freeman, an all-conference center on the verge of finding a bigger stage, was a huge piece. And redshirt junior Brandon Thomas, a starter at two positions last season, back at left tackle was comforting. That gave Clemson two experienced offensive linemen. Giff Timothy played a handful of downs at right tackle, but not enough to be certain he was ready.
Swinney turned the options over in his mind before springing his idea on offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Why not Tyler Shatley at right guard? What would you think of a 6-foot-3, 300-pound former fullback on Freeman’s right shoulder with redshirt freshman Kalon Davis on the left and Timothy at tackle?
Shatley had never played a snap on the offensive line at Clemson or high school. He played a little in grade school because he was so big it was feared he might hurt other kids if he ran the ball.
He spent the past two seasons playing defensive tackle. Shatley was credited with 30 tackles.
Swinney saw one of the strongest players on the team, an All-American this year by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, capable of matching muscle on either side of the ball, and one of the smartest. He is a civil engineering major, so picking up schemes and line calls should stick quickly.
But Shatley didn’t accept the move quickly. Recruiting analysts had ranked him one of the nation’s best prospects at fullback and tight end in 2009. He had already switched to defensive tackle. Now they wanted him to change again.
After consulting his father and high school coach, Shatley decided to take hold of the job like he was snatching 350 off the floor in the weight room.
“Once spring started it all started clicking. It felt smooth,” he said. “That was when I knew it was going to be a good transition for me.”
Somebody wondered if Morris’ scheme was tougher than engineering or if they were compatible. Shatley laughed. His interests are in construction, digging in the dirt. “Engineering is definitely tougher,” he said with a chuckle.
Swinney saw instantly it was a good decision for the team and possibly the best for Shatley.
“He was a productive D tackle and he could have continued to be a productive D tackle, but I felt like he was going to just be a good D tackle. He wasn’t going to be a great one,” he said. “I just felt that he would be a better fit for our team here and now, and if he took to it that would be a better long-term solution for him.”
Swinney now looks at his options around Shatley and Freeman and Thomas, and believes the team is in a far better place with three rather than two.
“I think it’s a quantum leap,” Swinney said. “We’re way ahead of where we’d been if we hadn’t had him there.”