Clemson University

Tigers' quiet O-line's more vocal approach working

CLEMSON -- Opposing sticks and stones have left their mark on Clemson's offensive line.

But words are being cited as both the cause and effect of the wounds it hopes are healing.

As much criticism as the line has received for its lack of physicality this season, senior right tackle Christian Capote suggested many of the Tigers' shortcomings can be resolved by rectifying communication breakdowns that arguably could stem simply from individual personalities.

Such talk would be cheap if not for the consensus Clemson's starting linemen rarely make a peep.

For a group coach Tommy Bowden called "short on verbiage" and the most quiet and reserved line he has ever coached, the cat has been slow to release their tongues.

"Most of us haven't said much for five years and pretty much have gone our own ways," senior left guard Chris McDuffie said.

"You look at it and you think there's not that much to be said. You study film, go to practice, run the plays and do your job. But we weren't communicating as well what we should be doing."

Considering the extroverts against whom they are measured -- predecessors Dustin Fry, Nathan Bennett and Roman Fry -- the argument could be made that no one else could get a word in edgewise to develop their communication skills.

Senior left tackle Barry Richardson's reputation for being a soft-spoken, if not silent, giant has reached mythical proportion. Neither McDuffie nor senior right guard Brandon Pilgrim come across as vocal types, while Capote does not mince words, either.

Sophomore Thomas Austin has accepted the job of being the line's unofficial spokesman, and Austin is more introspective than garrulous.

During Clemson's bye week, line coach Brad Scott challenged players to open up and help others out more.

"Everybody is kind of locked into their own game on a one-on-one match-up," Scott said. "Sometimes things that are happening on the other side of the field are indicators or tips for us. That's part of learning the game, which is why it takes a linemen so long to get on the field."

And why Scott has continued to preach patience for a unit (with three first-year full-time starters) that is still learning to communicate on the fly together.

"That's the hardest position to make improvement because your competition is six inches away and there's constant movement where a miscommunication or misstep, really you're in trouble," Bowden said.

Which explained the excessive sideline jubilation last weekend against Central Michigan when quarterback Cullen Harper rolled right and hit Jacoby Ford on a wheel route for a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Austin identified the number of Central Michigan's defensive linemen and shouted the protection call to his right and left.

At the right end of the line, Capote noted the alignment width of the outside linebacker and safety and yelled the code word for the blitz the Chippewas used 20 percent of the time out of the formation.

The alarm passed down to the other end of the line and made backup left guard Bobby Hutchinson aware that Capote would block down on the defensive tackle, Hutchinson's initial assignment.

Hutchinson pulled to the right side and reached the blitzing safety in time to keep Harper from getting clobbered on his bootleg sprint.

"Even if it doesn't happen and you're just making an alert call, everybody's thinking and looking, and you'll hit on those at least 50 percent of the time," Scott said.

"It's about having confidence in one another that my buddy will be there when they bring a certain blitz. It's knowing the other guy sees the same thing I see."

Reaching that point requires cohesion, which Scott figures will come with time the longer Clemson sticks with a regular rotation.

Austin, a converted guard, made just his second start at center against Central Michigan, with Pilgrim sliding into his starting spot.

"Chemistry is something we're still getting used to," Austin said. "But we made vast improvements in one week."

• When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Byrd Stadium, College Park, Md.

• TV: ABC (cable channel 4 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Sold out