Eric Mac Lain took the long road, paid his dues and winced at the mention that the Clemson offensive line might be challenged – in the politically correct sense.
Recruited as a tight end, Mac Lain finally conceded during his redshirt freshman season what everyone around him could see, that he was built to be a Dodge Ram and not a Mercedes.
Mac Lain made the transition, and his persistence and work are reaping huge dividends for the nation’s No. 1 team.
“It’s that negative aspect that we had at the beginning of the year, that we would be the low point of the team,” he said. Nothing could be farther from the truth, which makes the story of Clemson’s success all the more satisfying.
There are lots of reasons Clemson faces Wake Forest on Saturday undefeated, and a virtual lock to make the College Football Playoff, if it wins the next three games. Chiefly, quarterback Deshaun Watson’s emergence as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
But there were concerns about the line’s ability to protect Watson, accentuated when freshman Mitch Hyatt was thrust into the lineup at left tackle after Isaiah Battle was shown the door. That left returning center Ryan Norton and bunch of largely uncalloused pieces including Mac Lain.
Then Norton injured a knee.
“We’re going to develop the guys we have,” said Jeff Scott, co-offensive coordinator. “We’ve done it with a lot of guys that have been those kind of blue-collar guys who worked hard, had to persevere throughout their careers, and maybe by their junior or senior years they were contributors. It means a little bit more to them. I think that’s what you’re seeing in Eric and Jay (Guillermo). They didn’t have it easy to get where they are.”
Guillermo was highly regarded coming out of high school, the number one center as a senior by ESPN, but playing behind Norton, who started 26 games over three years, limited his opportunities. Then in January he withdrew from school to deal with depression, high blood pressure and sleep deprivation. His weight ballooned to over 370 pounds.
With proper medical intervention, support from his family and friends, Guillermo returned to Clemson during the summer and worked back into the mix.
“Just the perseverance those guys had,” Scott said of Guillermo, Mac Lain and Gore. “I think they’re a great example of our football team.”
Justified or not, Clemson was criticized for its inability to sign and develop top offensive line talent. This year’s freshman class might clip critics’ tongues with Hyatt handling left tackle like a veteran. Classmate Jake Fruhmorgen will start Saturday at right tackle for injured Joe Gore, another product of the blue-collar school.
Hyatt has been a rarity at Clemson. A first-year player hadn’t started at tackle since 1980.
“It’s a gritty position. You’ve just got to grind it out,” Scott said. “It’s not a lot of fun to be a redshirt offensive lineman, being on the scout team and going against our defensive line every day, all the weight lifting.”
Scott was the recruiting coordinator when many of these players were approached by Clemson, so he knows how difficult it is to identify top players.
“It’s one of the toughest positions to evaluate. You’ve got to make decisions on young men when they’re in the ninth and 10th grade,” Scott said. “For a skill player, it’s very easy to see a Deshaun Watson and Sammy Watkins in the ninth and 10th grade. For an offensive line, you don’t know if they’re going to continue to grow, if they’re going to fill out.”
Clemson averages 38.5 points and 496.3 yards per game. Rushing is up from an average 146 yards in 2014 to 217. And after allowing 27 sacks in 13 games, the total through 10 games is 14.
Scott said the offensive line “has taken on their shoulders that they are one of the team strengths.”
Those things might rush through Mac Lain’s mind when he stands atop the hill for the final run into Death Valley.
“Probably be crying like a baby,” he said. “It’s going to be a very emotional day, but we’ve got a football game to play.”
Who: Wake Forest (3-7, 1-5 ACC) at Clemson (10-0, 7-0)
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 93.1 FM
Series record: Clemson leads 62-17-1
Line: Clemson by 29
The men up front
Clemson’s starting offensive line, which has blocked for an offense that averages 38.5 points and 496 yards per game.
- LT Mitch Hyatt, 6-5, 295, Fr.
ACC Lineman of the Week vs. FSU
- LG Eric Mac Lain, 6-5, 315, Gr.
Graduate student is leader of the line and team
- C Jay Guillermo, 6-3, 325, Jr.
ACC Lineman of the Week against Georgia Tech and BC
- RG Maverick Morris, 6-5, 300, So.
He’s filling in for injured Tyrone Crowder
- RT Jake Fruhmorgen, 6-6, 280, Fr.
He’s starting Saturday for injured Joe Gore