GREENSBORO, N.C. — Heading into this season, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has a couple of key spots where he’s eagerly awaiting production. The Tigers have gotten strong performances from their offensive line and the kicking game the past few season, but as the season approaches Swinney’s still searching for answers involving those units.
The coach, in his sixth full season, is looking to see who will emerge as the top five offensive linemen.
“That’s a work in progress for us. That’s a big area that we’ve got to really do a good job with in fall camp and come out of it feeling good about the pieces we have to work with,” Swinney said at the ACC Kickoff Monday. “I really like the guys we have. We’ve got to get everybody dialed in on what we’re trying to do and to buy in to the commitment level we’re asking. We’ve got plenty of guys that have played a lot of football. We’ve got some good experience in there.”
Brandon Thomas is the big name missing from the line this season. He was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in May. Among the players aiming to replace the lost talent is Ryan Norton – a Rimington Trophy Watch List player. The junior has seen action at both center and guard for the Tigers in two seasons of play. Swinney said he’s also high on senior guard Kalon Davis
“I’m really, really excited about Kalon Davis, his development and his overall maturity as a football player and his knowledge,” Swinney said. “He gives us a lot of flexibility He can play either guard or tackle. He probably could play left tackle if we needed him to with the type of commitment he’s made from a conditioning standpoint.”
The Tigers are optimistic a pair of players whose natural position is tackle will reach their potential this season. Swinney said that it’s the coaches job to get Isaiah Battle and Shaq Anthony to play to at a high level.
“Isaiah Battle is probably as talented a guy as there is in this conference at his position,” he said.
Swinney later added he’s critical because he’s an elite talent. The 6-foot-7 lineman became a starter for the Tigers midway through last season and the coaches liked what they saw. However, they still think there’s more to be offered.
Joe Gore, David Beasley and Eric Mac Lain are also expected to compete for playing time this season. They’re part of a young contingent that also includes Tyrone Crowder and Jay Guillermo.
Swinney also had praise for Williston-Elko grad Taylor Hearn. Swinney said he loved the incoming freshman who was a two-time member of the All-Aiken Standard team as an offensive lineman.
“He’s a great young prospect, he’s big, but athletic,” Swinney said. “Very impressed with how he has come in this summer – his conditioning and his ability to run, his mental toughness. He’s a guy that is going to be fun to watch develop, I really believe.”
Hearn may not see any action early on with the crowded offensive line. He’s already on campus and has started the learning process with the Tigers.
“We’ve got a lot to teach him, but I think he’s got a chance to be a good one,” he said.
Clemson’s defensive line has gotten much of the attention during the offseason because of the experience returning and the results put up in the 2013 season. Swinney said he hopes that inspires the offensive line to play with a chip on its shoulder this season, like the defensive side did last season.
“Going against each other each day competitively hopefully will … bring out the best in both sides,” he said.
The other cause for concern is replacing kicker Chandler Catanzaro. He was a third team All-ACC selection last season. Swinney called the place kicking duties the biggest question for him headed into the fall.
“(Catanzaro) didn’t play offense, but he was a point scorer for us,” Swinney said. “That’s the one position I’m the most anxious to see perform in fall camp. I know what I’ve seen in practice. I feel really good about Ammon Lakip and what he’s done at practice … I have no idea what to expect when it’s a tight situation and we’ve got to run him out there for that first big kick.”
According to Swinney, he never thought twice about sending Catanzaro out in any big situation. The former walk-on connected on 81 percent of his field goals during his career in Clemson.
With just under 40 days until the season kicks off, Swinney will soon get his answers.
Eric Russell covers sports for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @EricJ_Russell.