The Tigers, led by head coach Dabo Swinney, will run down the hill for the first time on Saturday vs. North Texas.
The most important players on Clemson’s offense? Hairston, Cloy, Freeman, McClain, Walker, and Diehl.
What, no Xavier Dye? What about Jamie Harper? Andre Ellington?
Heck, not even Kyle Parker?
That’s right. Ladies and gentlemen, meet our offensive line and fullback.
Tackles Chris Hairston and Landon Walker, guards Mason Cloy and Antoine McClain, center Dalton Freeman, and fullback Chad Diehl will determine the success of the Clemson Tigers this season.
Now, sure it helps that Kyle Parker returned for one more season leading the offense into battle. It helps that Ellington and Harper had a great amount of experience at running back behind C.J. Spiller in the 2009 season. It helps that Roderick McDowell has worked hard over the summer and, from what the coaches say, will be a competent third back.
But without the offensive line and the fullback known as “The Big Diehl,” Clemson’s offense is going nowhere in the ACC this year.
Clemson’s offense has always been determined by the work of the offensive line. Take, for example, 2008. Clemson entered the season ranked ninth in the nation. The offense returned quarterback Cullen Harper, coming off of a 27-touchdown season (with only six interceptions), 1,000-yard rusher James Davis, 1,000-yard receiver Aaron Kelly, and a supporting cast of C.J. Spiller, Tyler Grisham, and Jacoby Ford.
Clemson started off the season in the Georgia Dome against No. 24 Alabama, a young, inexperienced team, albeit with high expectations.
Clemson mustered just three offensive points against the Tide. The only other score for the Tigers was a kickoff return by Spiller to open up the second half.
The game ended in a 34-10 disaster for the Tigers. But more disappointing, the offense accumulated zero net rushing yards.
You read that right. Zero. Throughout the whole game. With Davis and Spiller (and Harper, who made his collegiate debut) in the backfield.
Davis, Spiller, and Harper are not terrible running backs. To the contrary, they were and are among the better running backs in college football. So why were they unable to go anywhere? A young, inexperienced offensive line.
The Alabama game was played under Tommy Bowden’s offense, which rarely used a fullback, even in two-back formations. And even with the implementation of Dabo Swinney’s offense halfway through the year, Clemson still only mustered an average of 3.4 yards per carry for the 2008 campaign.
In 2009, Swinney was able to fully employ his offense, and gave Chad Diehl a bigger role to play. Diehl, combined with a more experienced offensive line, led Clemson to 4.8 yards per carry. Clemson’s top three running backs all averaged more than five yards per carry.
The offensive line also helped Kyle Parker throw for 2,526 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first season directing the offense.
We can measure the offensive line by how many sacks they’ve given up. In 2008, the offensive line allowed 20 sacks in 13 games, on 557 offensive plays. Last year, the offensive line allowed 19 sacks in 14 games, but on 886 offensive plays.
We can even turn the tables to demonstrate how the opponent’s offensive line affects our offense. In 2008, Clemson’s defense recorded just nine sacks over the course of the season. Last season, the Tigers dominated on the defensive line, recording 36 sacks against their opponents, and in turn helping their own offense get more opportunities to score.
The importance of the offensive line is often ignored since there are no yards to be gained, touchdowns to be scored, or interceptions to be grabbed. But they are probably the most important players on the field, giving the quarterback time to throw and creating lanes for the running backs.
They are not the names that everyone recognizes from the Clemson offense, but they are the group of players that Clemson will depend most on this season. More than anyone else, the Tigers’ success in 2010 is in their hands.