Clemson University

Tigers' O-line ready to establish identity

CLEMSON -- They're not inexperienced, raw rookies expected to learn on the job. They actually have a combined 37 starts and a multitude of snaps between them.

But they're not "The Guys," the ones who got all the preseason press last year and set up a devastating offensive attack.

Clemson's projected starting offensive line -- left tackle Barry Richardson, left guard Chris McDuffie, center Barry Humphries, right guard Thomas Austin and right tackle Christian Capote -- have the experience necessary to provide the same punch as the Tigers' line last year. But until they do it, they're living with the "Can they ..." tag always associated when a team loses a veteran group.

"Yeah, we hear that all the time," said McDuffie at the Tigers' Fan Appreciation Day. "But I don't think we're going to have any problems."

McDuffie, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound redshirt senior, figures the criticism might be a bit warranted, but it's not necessary. Capote and Richardson are also seniors, and while it's true Austin and Humphries are sophomores, it's not like they're the first guys that were pulled off the street during recruiting season.

"We've been working all summer, and some of us got to play last year," McDuffie pointed out. "We'll be fine."

The question arose after the Tigers' heralded line of 2006 -- Marion Dukes, Nathan Bennett, Dustin Fry, Roman Fry and Richardson -- was hit hard by graduation. Only Richardson, a preseason All-American, returned from a group that had been in the trenches together for years.

Richardson, who's started 32 straight games at his position, was a good building block and solved the problem of protecting the quarterback's blind side. McDuffie slid right in after replacing Roman Fry for the last five games last season, brought on when Fry shredded his knee.

But the other three were the questions. Coming from a deep pool of talent, Humphries, Austin and Capote rose to the top.

Humphries, the team's strongest player in the bench press (460 pounds), played 84 snaps behind Dustin Fry last year and is the kind of strong but quick player Clemson's offense desires. Austin slipped past projected starter Brandon Pilgrim in camp while Capote battled a sore shoulder but still held onto the job.

With less than two weeks to go before the Sept. 3 opener hosting No. 19 Florida State, the line is more or less intact. It might not be completely game-ready (especially with a conference rivalry match right off the bat), but the coaching staff said it's getting there.

"They're getting a lot better," coach Tommy Bowden said. "Fundamentally, they're still a little ways off, but that's what camp is for."

Richardson, the obvious leader of the group, said he was impressed with how Austin soared to the top of the depth chart and he was also comfortable with the other players (Pilgrim, Chris Hairston, Bobby Hutchinson, Cory Lambert) developing in the substitute roles. The starters aren't last year's starters and never will be.

But they don't want to be, either.

"We have our own identity," Richardson said. "We just have to go out and prove it."