CLEMSON – Robbie Caldwell says the last freshman he’s coached who started on the offensive line was Brian Stamper at Vanderbilt in 2003.
The last freshman offensive lineman to start at Clemson was Barry Richardson in 2004.
The last freshman to start the opening game of the season for the Tigers?
No one knows for sure — at least not in the modern era — but Mitch Hyatt could become the answer to that trivia question when Clemson opens the 2015 season against Wofford on Sept. 5.
It would seem a scary proposition for most coaches, but Caldwell — Clemson’s veteran offensive line coach — has experience in getting young players trained to play in a hurry.
Caldwell’s latest crash course began this afternoon when the Tigers officially kicked off fall camp with a three-hour practice.
“I like the challenge of getting young players ready,” Caldwell said. “I’ve had to do it throughout my career, so it doesn’t concern me at all.”
The offensive line, and in particular, offensive tackle, is considered by many to be the most difficult position to learn, which makes freshmen contributors few and far between.
The gap between high school offensive linemen and senior defensive tackles can be a wide one, and rookies typically need time to gain strength, weight, strength and stamina — not to mention knowledge.
“It’s hard to teach,” Caldwell said. “If they don’t have it, they don’t have it. You gotta enjoy the weight room — that may be the No. 1 factor.”
Another factor is attitude.
“The age of ‘em doesn’t concern me — the attitude of ‘em does,” Caldwell said.
In that regard, Hyatt passes the test.
Hyatt, as well as fellow freshman Jake Fruhmorgen, possess a mean streak that often separates the great offensive linemen from the good ones.
“They will hurt you,” Caldwell said. “They’ll get after your butt. They’re gonna get after you and finish you. They want to bury you in the dirt. Do they have all the tools yet? No, not yet, but it’s coming.”
Hyatt comes in as one of the most highly regarded offensive linemen in program history. The nephew of Dan Benish, who was a defensive lineman on Clemson’s 1981 national championship team, he was rated the No. 2 tackle in the nation by ESPN as a senior at North Gwinnett High in Sugar Hill, Georgia.
He may get the chance to live up to that billing sooner rather than later given the unanticipated loss of starting left tackle Isaiah Battle, who opted to enter the NFL Supplemental Draft last month and will forego his senior season to pursue a pro career with the St. Louis Rams.
Senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain believes Hyatt is ready, particularly given that he was an early enrollee in January and was able to go through spring practice.
“If something like this had happened in the middle of the season, it might’ve been more difficult, but this guy has had a few months to prepare as the starter,” Mac Lain said. “Yeah, it’s going to be a trial by fire, but he’s a five-star athlete for a reason. It’s time for him to prove his worth, and I think he’s ready.
“In the spring, Isaiah missed a couple of practices and Mitch had to step right in and there was no dropoff. If anything there was better communication because he didn’t know so much so you had to talk him through things. And maybe it helped the rest of us see some things that we wouldn’t have seen if we hadn’t been talking.”
But a freshman starting at left tackle? Protecting the franchise in sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson?
“I know it’s something that hasn’t been done in a while,” Mac Lain said. “But we haven’t had a player like Mitch in a while.”
Caldwell admits that Hyatt is the “most advanced and knowledgeable” of any freshmen linemen he’s ever coached, so he expects the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder to continue to pick up things quickly and emerge as a major contributor early.
And Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agrees.
“After what we saw in the spring, he certainly gives us the best chance, going into camp,” Swinney said. “We’ll see where we are as we go through the process, but I don’t think he’s going to change his stripes.
“He’s a very committed, very focused guy. I think he’s going to be better in August than he was the last time I saw him on the field in April, I don’t think there’s any question about that. He’s bigger, stronger and more knowledgeable and he’s excited about his opportunity. He’s not the type of young man who gets overwhelmed.”