Offensive lines are often one of the most overlooked groups during the season or with preseason predictions. While the five players in the trenches aren’t going to be on many highlight reels, offensive lines are the key to any team's offensive attack.
Clemson’s offensive line was already far from settled by the end of spring practice. The Tigers had only two returning starters and depth was a concern. And the uncertainty surrounding this unit was increased on Thursday, as left tackle Isaiah Battle entered the NFL’s supplemental draft.
Although Battle had his share of inconsistencies at Clemson, the New York native entered 2014 with 15 starts and was considered a top 10 prospect at tackle for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Without Battle, center Ryan Norton is the only returning starter for coach Dabo Swinney.
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
A returning starter count isn’t necessarily the best way to judge any position, but it’s no secret Clemson’s offensive line is going to hold the key to the 2015 season. Much of the offseason focus at Clemson has been on new offensive co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who are tasked with replacing Chad Morris.
However, even if the offense takes a small step back without Morris calling the plays, this group won’t get on track without productive play up front. And adding to Swinney’s concerns: quarterback Deshaun Watson is coming off of a torn ACL.
And it's not as if the offensive line didn't have its own issues in 2014 either. Clemson allowed 27 sacks, and rushers averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in ACC games. The Tigers also ranked No. 101 in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards measure and No. 126 in power success rate.
On the positive side for Swinney, Clemson’s offensive line has talent ready to emerge in the form of freshmen Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen. Hyatt was a five-star recruit by 247Sports Composite and was the No. 22 overall recruit in the 2015 signing class. Fruhmorgen was graded as a four-star prospect and the No. 119 recruit.
How long will it take for this group to mesh? As fast as possible will be the hope for Swinney. The schedule won’t do the Tigers any favors. Louisville, which has one of the ACC’s top defensive fronts, hosts Clemson in Week 3. And the Tigers play Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Boston College in the first three weeks of October. All three defenses have enough talent to disrupt Clemson’s offense if the line struggles.
Improvement from the offensive line was needed in order for Clemson to win 10 games for the fifth consecutive season. With the uncertainty up front and new play-callers in place, there’s even more pressure on the shoulders of Watson, who is just a sophomore himself.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Swinney. But the question marks for the 2015 team are significant. With Florida State also dealing with similar concerns, Louisville reloading on its offensive line and at quarterback, the ACC Atlantic is going to be an interesting race to watch this fall.
Here’s a look at the projected starting offensive line, with the career starts and recruiting rank:
LT Mitch Hyatt (True Freshman)
5 Stars, No. 22 Overall
LG Eric Mac Lain (Senior)
4 Stars, No. 182 Overall
C Ryan Norton (Senior)
3 Stars, No. 690 Overall
RG Tyrone Crowder (Sophomore)
4 Stars, No. 117 Overall
RT Joe Gore (Senior)
3 Stars, No. 408 Overall