CLEMSON — It's never good when, in the middle of a season, your offensive linemen look around and realize they don't really know each other.
That reality struck Clemson's line last October during a particularly rough stretch. The camaraderie wasn't terrible. But it wasn't all that good, either.
That's all expected to change in a big way this season. The new line might be young and inexperienced, and it might indeed be the biggest weakness on a team that's expected to sniff greatness in 2008.
But there doesn't appear to be any doubt that this edition offers an upgrade in cohesion and togetherness.
"I said it at the end of spring, and I keep mentioning that there's something about this group of linemen," said offensive line coach Brad Scott. "There's a oneness about them. They're best friends. They eat together. They hang out with each other. And that's so important at our position."
Last year's offensive line starters — left tackle Barry Richardson, left guard Chris McDuffie, center Thomas Austin, right guard Brandon Pilgrim and right tackle Christian Capote — were a complex mix of personalities.
They hadn't played together long enough to form many lasting bonds. A few days before the eighth game at Maryland, coach Tommy Bowden said it was the quietest line he'd encountered in 30 years of coaching. Former Tigers lineman Marion Dukes, who served as a student assistant last season, observed then that the line wasn't having fun and wasn't acting like a family.
Richardson, McDuffie, Pilgrim and Capote are gone, and this year's line is happy to report that things have changed.
"We're like brothers," said Mason Cloy, who will challenge Barry Humphries for the starting spot at right guard. "We enjoy watching each other succeed, and we all work hard together and encourage each other. We're just out there to push each other."
Scott is entering his fifth year overseeing the Tigers' line. He says that now, for the first time, he has recruited every lineman he's coaching.
"I've been in their homes," he said. "I know their families. I kind of know them a little bit better than maybe some of those guys in the past, and I think it's going to show."
Cloy, guard David Smith, tackle Landon Walker and guard Wilson Norris are all redshirt freshmen who roomed together last year. Cloy says the four are pretty much inseparable away from the field.
The line also has four fourth-year juniors — tackle Cory Lambert, guard Jamarcus Grant, Austin and Humphries — who forged a similar bond when they were younger, and one that endures to this day.
Add in third-year sophomore tackles Chris Hairston and Jamal Medlin, and this year's line features layers of unity and friendship that weren't present before.
"The camaraderie is definitely better this year," Humphries said. "Me, Thomas, Cory and Jamarcus all came in together and we all lived together. We've pretty much taken all these freshmen under our wings, the redshirt freshmen and some of the redshirt sophomores. We're always hanging out together, so there's definitely more of a sense of a unit this year than in years past as far as everybody interacting with each other and not just being teammates."
The friendship and togetherness can help, but there's still that rather glaring issue of inexperience. Apart from Humphries, who started twice last season at right guard and played 705 snaps overall, the only other guard with any experience is Grant. And his only action the past two seasons came in blowout victories.
Grant is battling Smith at left guard, and Humphries is trying to fight off Cloy. Lambert and Hairston have a total of two career starts at the tackle positions.
"We're still young, and we've still got a lot to learn," Scott said. "But they're eager, and they're sure going to compete."
Said Austin: "A lot of guys hang out together off the field, and that's really that X factor that doesn't show up on paper. We've got a real close-knit group of guys, which is where it starts with cohesiveness: off-the-field stuff."
--Receiver Xavier Dye missed Saturday's practice with a shoulder injury but is expected to return today.
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