The offensive line is one of the position groups I understand the least, so I often must rely on others to explain what is going on. The 2020 season was one of those times. With Travis Etienne not finding the running room he used to find, I heard many claim the problem was with the offensive line. This unit wasn’t opening opportunities the same as the offensive lines of previous seasons.
Clemson had never been known for having an elite line, but usually they had a decent unit that got the job done, but the 2020 line had a lot of new starters. One thing I have figured out over the years is that you can have two, sometimes three very good offensive lineman, but one weak link can cause the unit to be less than it should be. Other times, it can be coaching. I know some have criticized Robbie Caldwell’s recruiting in the past, but I think most consider him to be a competent coach.
What was the problem? I had little choice but to start looking for others to explain it to me. I searched the well-known and respected Clemson websites first, which is where I learned some very surface level information – run blocking was a challenge but pass blocking seemed to be better. Some people said that was more indicative of problems on the interior, but no one was really diagnosing the problem. I had to dig deeper and go to that place where reality meets fantasy meets lunacy: the message boards.
If you have never been to college football message boards, it’s kind of like walking into a black market. You must be able to cipher who is full of it and who knows what they are talking about. It’s also the place where people are willing to say the things that more respectable people aren’t. It took some time, but I found the answer I was looking for, but even on the message boards, there was one line they still weren’t willing to cross.
The explanation I found was that the problems emanated from the center position. After the snap, the center position was a liability that required the guards to assist, throwing everything off on the line. I may not understand offensive line play, but opposing coaching staffs understand, and as the season progressed, Clemson’s opponents were scheming to take advantage of the unreliable blocking by the center.
What was the line that the message boards wouldn’t cross? No one was willing to say Cade Stewart’s name. Every criticism was of ‘the center position’, even though we all knew who was playing center. Stewart was a fifth-year guy that could have left a long time ago to find more playing time. Instead, he stuck it out and took advantage of his opportunities. As a redshirt junior in 2019, he saw decent playing time, averaging about 25 snaps a game. When the Tigers needed to replace Gage Cervenka at center, Stewart got the job. That says something strong – even though many of the people engaging in these message board conversations could be a little crazy and had no problem slinging insults, nobody was willing to call out Stewart by name.
What is the first thing a center absolutely must do, and do well? That’s easy: snap the football. If you can’t get the snap off right, what does the rest matter? It isn’t as easy as it used to be in college ball since so many teams run most of their plays from the shotgun, and when something goes wrong, it can go very wrong. Stewart checked off that first box: the Tigers didn’t have many problems with the snap in 2020.
Looking forward now to the 2021 campaign, Stewart has moved on, and we have heard no less than five names mentioned for center. True freshman Ryan Linthicum is one of the few players specifically recruited as a center, but the staff said early in spring that he had a long way to go to be ready to play. One of Stewart’s backups from last season, Hunter Rayburn, seemed to be the leader in the spring. As fall practice opened, Mason Trotter took the lead with the first team. Then we started to hear that Matt Bockhorst, who started at guard in 2020, was going to cross train at center. The popular theory behind Bockhorst in the middle is the “best five on the field” theory. What’s the most fascinating thing about the center battle this fall? When asked about the competition, Coach Swinney said “Trent Howard has done a good job, really pleased with him. He’s probably the most consistent when it comes to just the center-quarterback exchange part.”
Trent Howard is a redshirt freshman who saw minimal time in four games in 2020. He wasn’t listed on the two deep at any position in Clemson’s pre-camp depth chart, nor has he been mentioned as a name that has been playing center with the first string. If Trent Howard is the most consistent snapper on this team but isn’t really in the competition to be the starting center, it is likely because he hasn’t been as reliable as the others after the snap. I am inferring that Clemson’s staff has decided that snap consistency is not the end all, be all for starting at center.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t think it is important – Swinney has stressed that the men competing for the starting center job must improve their snapping – and in the end, it very well may be what differentiates the finalists from one another, but it seems how they perform after the snap will be the dividing line between whether they are a finalist or not. We may be looking at a situation where none of the candidates can measure up to Bockhorst, who holds two more years of experience over any of the others. If he is hands down the best after the snap, the Tigers may go with him, even if it means we see more snap problems than we did in 2020.