Clemson University

Future lines up nicely for Tigers

CLEMSON - The nation might have learned of Nebraska stud defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh only recently, but Tigers fans have known about him for a year.

Suh treated Clemson's offensive linemen like rag dolls in last season's Gator Bowl, and it was arguably the line's third-worst showing against a high-profile pass-rusher that season.

The Tigers fared exponentially better against big-time players this season, quieting Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan and TCU's Jerry Hughes while holding their own against USC's Eric Norwood.

"Our improvement really didn't have much to do with us going to three-point stances or any (technique) junk like that," junior left tackle Chris Hairston said. "The light has come on for a number of players."

For many Clemson followers, one of the main barometers for coach Dabo Swinney's inaugural season was the physicality and productivity of the line, which seemingly had validated in recent years the theory that a group is only as strong as its weakest link.

The line didn't overwhelm opponents this season, but it would be tough to argue that it didn't improve.

Entering Sunday's Music City Bowl against Kentucky, the Tigers have averaged 169.6 rushing yards per game - 58 more than a year ago - while boosting their average yards per carry from 3.4 to 4.8.

They also have reduced the number of sacks allowed from 34 last season to 19 this season.

The best news for line coach Brad Scott is that the majority of the starting cast should remain intact for two more years.

Left guard Thomas Austin is the only senior this season, and Hairston will be the only one next season. Right tackle Landon Walker, right guard Antoine McClain and veteran left guard heir Mason Cloy are sophomores, and center Dalton Freeman is a freshman.

"That's what you want," Scott said. "The situation looks bright."

Scott said he wants to see more physical play from the unit, but slashing the number of missed assignments due to inexperience had a big hand in allowing C.J. Spiller and Co. to do their things.

Furthermore, improved pass protection opened the door for a fairly potent play-action passing attack, and Scott said the line was made to look good by quarterback Kyle Parker's quick release and scrambling ability. It also helped that new coordinator Billy Napier made schematic changes to give Parker a hot route for when opponents blitzed Clemson's five-man protections - something the team lacked under former coordinator Rob Spence.

With two expected contributors perhaps out this spring because of injury - Cloy is not slated to return until August camp because of a broken fibula, while freshman tackle J.K. Jay's career is in jeopardy after a second surgery on a herniated back disc - Scott said the primary offseason objectives will be building depth.

Redshirting freshman Brandon Thomas will get a look at left guard, and there is hope Wilson Norris and Matt Sanders will become viable reserves.

Sophomore David Smith showed promise sharing time at right tackle the second half of the season, but finding a stopgap at left tackle should Hairston suffer an injury remains a concern. Thomas also will get time there, while the staff is high on converted sophomore walk-on tight end Phillip Price, who has gained 22 pounds this year and whom Scott thinks can add 20 more to reach 300 and be an option by next season.

"We're not starting over like we were a couple of years ago," Scott said. "We think these guys will take another step forward next year and raise the bar."

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