We have a recruiting problem.
With the regular season over and “awards season” upon us, the next major event on the horizon is Early Signing Day. Last year, ESD was a success for Clemson as they received NLI from all of their top targets with few surprises thrown in. Some of those players have been major contributors this year en route to a 13-0 season (the second in 4 years) and another College Football Playoff berth.
And yet, in spite of all of that success, there is a problem: Clemson does not recruit on the offensive line the way that most people want them to recruit the offensive line. The Kraken wrote something recently that addressed offensive line recruiting and how the dedication to recruiting along the lines of scrimmage has correlated to Clemson’s ascension into the elite ranks of College Football, and yet the trend continues of under-performing to expectations.
You could put together an All American 2 deep with the high profile offensive linemen that Clemson has swung on and missed or simply failed to recruit over the last 5 years. During that time, the staff has had its share of hits (Anchrum and Cade Stewart come to mind), but lacked the numbers or star power to be truly impressive. As many have said, you can’t expect to be in the elite in college football if you can’t consistently win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Clemson’s struggles in recruiting the offensive line are myriad. A lack of NFL success is an obvious knock against Clemson, with starters like Guillermo, Crowder, Gore, and Hearn failing to stick in the NFL. Numbers also hurt, given Clemson’s strategy with recruiting and the fact that they hold fast to their strategy around how many scholarships they will offer in a given year. Effort is the final knock, with many alleging that Clemson’s aging offensive line coach is either unable or unwilling to keep up with the hustle of recruiting that is required to bring in 4-5 blue chip recruits every cycle.
Regardless of the reasons, it has been well documented now across Twitter and the darker corners of the Clemson blogs that Clemson just isn’t holding true to the motto “Best is the Standard” when it comes to offensive line recruiting. This year is as good of an example as any, with a dire need to bring in bodies to make up for two consecutive “light” classes to provide quality depth in 2019 and 2020.
There is an issue with this narrative though, and it has to do with the results. If recruiting metrics and these pundits are to be believed, Clemson should not be able to perform at such a high level with such consistency. Indeed, only one program in the entire nation has played at the same level of consistency as Clemson and that is Alabama. Yet, there are several programs that have recruited consistently on the offensive line at a significantly higher level than Clemson.
In fact, a look at the advanced stats for this year presents an interesting look at the offensive line and it’s performance relative to other programs. Some of that can be attributed to scheme, some to the talent of players at other positions. But not all. Here are some S&P rankings from the season:
- Opportunity rate: 22nd
- Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry: 14th
- Standard Downs Sack Rate: 16th
- Sack Rate: 16th
- Passing Downs Line Yards per Carry: 13th
- Passing Downs Sack Rate: 26th
There’s a lot to unpack here. Clemson in 2018 did a very good job of run blocking and a good job of pass protecting. All of the categories other than Passing Downs Sack Rate are top 25 (which is right there as well). Top 25 of 130 teams (around 60 Power 5 teams) is significantly above average. None of these numbers are what you’d consider “elite,” but all are certainly in the very good category.
In spite of this apparent weakness or failure, Clemson is winning consistently and experiencing strong, if not elite, play on the offensive line. I would argue that the statistics above indicate that Clemson is outperforming its associated recruiting on the offensive line and the performance that you’d expect under the circumstances (given the lack of numbers and solidly mediocre level of talent brought in).
So, an objective analysis of this leads to the conclusion that something doesn’t add up. Clemson appears to be either identifying talent on the offensive line better than their peers, developing the talent that they are bringing in better than their peers, getting incredibly lucky, or some combination of the three. Luck is hard to quantify even if it certainly exists, but it does beg the question of why Clemson seems to play better on the offensive line than they recruit.
I certainly don’t have the answer to this conundrum, but I do think that there needs to be more thought applied than a blanket statement like “fire Robbie Caldwell,” or “Clemson should take 5 offensive line commitments in every class.” I don’t think it’s that simple and I don’t think either option truly addresses the nature of the issue. I do think that more people, when questioning the strategy that Clemson’s staff employs with regard to recruiting in general, should be to ask why Clemson does so well in spite of the supposed handicaps instead of stating what Clemson should do differently.