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CLEMSON -- Robbie Caldwell, Clemson’s 67-year-old offensive line coach, has been working on a patchwork quilt.
Caldwell takes four or five pieces for the middle area and sews them together in different patterns of three. He’s been doing this since September. In the past nine games, there have been seven combinations of left guard, center and right guard in the starting lineup.
Last week against Wake Forest, a new design yet again. Hunter Rayburn was at left guard for the first time and Mason Trotter back at center after two games at right guard, where Will Putnam returned from an ankle injury.
That scheme popped.
Clemson beat Wake Forest, 48-27, rushing for 333 yards, more than double the season average of 145.8, and not allowing a sack for the first time since Week Three against Georgia Tech. The middle of the Tigers’ offensive line meshed perfectly with the edges of tackles Jordan McFadden and Walker Parks.
The Tigers (8-3) will try to build on their best offensive game of the season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network) against South Carolina (6-5) at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
In the Clemson locker room after the Tigers’ offense overwhelmed Wake Forest, the game ball went to Caldwell.
“Very deserving,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “That group right there was challenged the most -- the coaches and the offensive line.”
The ability to rely on a running game has proven crucial for the development of sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. In the previous two weeks against Connecticut and Louisville, the Tigers averaged 3.4 yards per carry. Only Miami is lower than 4.1 for the season in the ACC. Against Wake Forest, Clemson averaged 9.25 yards. Sophomore Kobe Pace went for 191 and freshman Will Shipley for 112.
“The offensive line, man, they did an amazing job,” Uiagalelei said. “They made holes that were so huge it looked like the parting of the Red Sea sometimes. I had all day back there to throw (for 208 yards and touchdown on only 19 attempts).”
Caldwell, in his 11th season with the Tigers and 44th overall, hasn’t taken this much criticism since he went 2-10 at Vanderbilt in his only time as a head coach, a firing that brought him to Clemson. Until a month ago, the Tigers were last (14th) among ACC teams in scoring and total offense. The offensive line took much of the heat despite youth and a rash of injuries.
“He’s been in this business for a long time. So he’s been through it,” Elliott said. “He’s actually turned into the coach telling all us young guys (Elliott will turn 42 on Friday) how to deal with adversity. He’s had the same energy he’s always had and the same tenacity in coaching those guys hard.
“It’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do with the combination week to week, not knowing who’s up and who’s down. I haven’t seen a slowdown with Coach Caldwell. He’s been a rock in that room, keeping everybody encouraged. Look at all the adversity in his room and all the scrutiny from outside the program.”
Because of injuries, all-ACC left guard Matt Bockhorst opened the season at center. He moved to right tackle after four games, back to left tackle after one game and two games later suffered a career-ending knee injury. Trotter has played two different middle positions after missing the first five games. Rayburn has played everywhere. At times, the Tigers have been down to three somewhat healthy players to fill three spots.
“Nobody’s had a harder job than (Caldwell) all year long,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Man, those guys just continue to hang in there.”
“You never know when injuries are going to occur,” Caldwell said during preseason camp in August. “To get your best players on the field, you need to cross-train them. Some guys can handle it. Some guys can’t. That’s kind of when maturity comes in. Everybody matures a little differently.”
Clemson is young all across the line but especially in the middle, where Putnam is the elder statesman as a junior. Rayburn and Trotter are redshirt sophomores and Marcus Tate, who has started seven games at left guard, is a freshman. At tackle, McFadden is a fourth-year junior and Parks a sophomore.
Parks said the offensive line’s confidence wavered after Uiagalelei was sacked seven times and the Tigers had just 2 rushing yards in the season-opening 10-3 loss to Georgia.
“We had a rough game against Georgia, obviously,” Parks said. “After that, it’s hard to build confidence, especially when you have a bunch of young guys. If you’re not ready for that mentally, it’s going to be a rude awakening. And it was.”
While things are looking better on the offensive line, even without Bockhorst, that doesn’t mean the quilt is finished. But it has to be a warm feeling.
“That’s who we really are -- the whole offense, not just our unit,” Parks said. “That offense Saturday, that’s our identity. That’s what’s to come. That’s our potential. That’s our future.”
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson's patchwork quilt of an offensive line finally coming together