We're breaking down the status of each position on the Clemson football team every week until kickoff.
By Morgan Thomas
Position Coach: Thomas Austin
Head Coach Dabo Swinney hired Thomas Austin for an off-field analyst role in 2021. It was an obvious move for the team as Austin has been groomed to take over for former offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell. After the season, Austin was named as the new offensive line coach for Clemson on February 2nd, 2022. He is extremely familiar with the program and Swinney's philosophy. Austin played for the Tigers from 2006 to 2009 and helped power the dynamic running back duo of James Davis and CJ Spiller.
Following his time as a player for Clemson, he went on to play four years in the NFL with the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, and the Indianapolis Colts. Austin then returned to Clemson in a support role from 2015 to 2018. After that, he was named the offensive line coach for Georgia State from 2019 to 2020.
Thomas Austin is one of those players that experienced the beginning of the Dabo Swinney era. He endured an eight, nine, seven, and even a 6-win season at Clemson. Six wins? I know, it seems like a generation ago now. I believe it is a great move for Clemson. Austin knows what it took for Swinney and the Tigers to get where they are today. He knows what it takes for an offensive line to lead the way for two electric running backs. He was in the trenches, he has played at the highest level and he has been groomed by a veteran of the game in Robbie Caldwell. This is his year to take over and develop the team around him. He has stars, he has potential, and he has talent that is returning from injury. I believe Clemson has what it takes to become one of the most dominant running teams in the league. Having a feared running attack should not only help Clemson develop and maintain an offensive identity in 2022 but it could ease the stress that the passing game experienced last season.
Who is the starter?
LT: Graduate Jordan McFadden
McFadden has been the most consistent player on the offensive line for a few years now. Last year was extremely difficult for the Tigers on the line. For much of the season, McFadden had to anchor the left side and protect DJ Uiagalelei's blind side but he also had to help guide and support true freshman Marcus Tate at the left guard position. Along with being the veteran leader for the group, McFadden was tasked with doing three things at once much of the 2021 season. He took on the challenge and finished the season with 872 snaps while starting 13 games. His efforts earned him a selection to the Second-Team All-ACC. Clemson will once again look to McFadden to be the veteran leader of the group on and off the field. According to PFF.com grades, McFadden finished the season with a grade of 87.4, which was 1.6 points higher than the 7th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Evan Neal.
RT: Junior Walker Parks
Clemson's cowboy from Lexington, Kentucky is expected to be back at right tackle for the 2022 season. You read his class correctly. He started all 13 games and played 869 snaps as only a sophomore. Parks will have to manage some uncertainty around him this season, much like McFadden did last season. Clemson is still looking for a consistent offensive center and right guard combination that they can trust in 2022. Parks will need to continue his record of consistency on the outside and provide feedback to those around him who might not be as experienced.
Who is the rising star?
Redshirt Freshman Tristan Leigh
Leigh might still be an unknown to some Clemson fans, especially those who don't follow recruiting. According to 247Sports, he was the 15th-best overall player in the 2021 class and the fourth-best offensive tackle in the nation. He was one of three 5-star players that Clemson took in 2021, joining Will Shipley and Barrett Carter. The 6-foot-6 325lb freshman played 20 snaps last season while redshirting. He is a physical player who has the size and the power to develop into a dominant offensive lineman for the Tigers. Recruiting rankings are never a guarantee but his film is loaded with clips of him finishing blocks and putting defenders in the ground regularly. If everything goes as planned, Leigh will likely play a backup role to McFadden or Parks during the season. His snap count should jump significantly but I would not expect him to take more than about 15% of the total considering the guys ahead of him play just about every snap.
Best of the rest?
This is the big question mark for Clemson and their offensive line. Who is the next best tackle in line outside of the three mentioned? If you take a look at the depth chart the Tigers released for the Iowa State game, it could be a toss-up between Marcus Tate and Mitchell Mayes. However, all signs currently point to them playing at the guard position. There is an abundance of interior offensive linemen on the roster but very few tackles are in waiting. Clemson did address this issue in their 2022 recruiting class by taking offensive tackles Collin Sadler and Blake Miller who are both very big and physical. Outside of injury, I would expect them to be on the same development plan as Tristan Leigh was last season. I could also see a situation where one player is redshirted and the other is not to help with roster management.
What will make 2022 a success?
I believe the simplest solution is to build on what was successful late in the season last year. Clemson will need to be a run-first and run often team until the passing game can prove to be trustworthy again. This offensive line will need to help Will Shipley pass 1,000 yards rushing and will also need to have Pace and Mafah pass 500 yards rushing each. As for the passing game, I believe an improvement on time to throw seconds would be helpful for DJ Uiagalelei and the receivers. I couldn't locate a specific result for Clemson in 2021 for this stat, however, when you look around the league, 2.60 seconds or longer is a must. According to Breakoutfinder.com, Trevor Lawrence had on average 4.0 seconds or longer in 2020. I understand there are a lot of factors involved and quarterback mobility is one of them. Clemson's offensive line is the other group responsible for offensive success this coming season but without improvement along the line of scrimmage, it could be another painful offensive season.