CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson's steady offensive line, which once was the team's deepest unit, now is riddled with uncertainty.
A rash of injuries, ranging from career-ending to perpetually nagging, has forced the Tigers to reshuffle their personnel.
Less than a week before kicking off the 2000 season, the No. 17 Tigers are scrambling to piece together a competent corps. Clemson opens its season Saturday against Division I-AA The Citadel (2-9 in 1999) at 6 p.m. in Death Valley.
Graduate student John McDermott entered preseason workouts optimistic the Tigers' offense could increase productivity. Now, he'd settle for a little consistency.
"It seems almost daily we have a new offensive line," said McDermott, who started 12 games at right tackle last year.
Offensive line coach Ron West rebuilt his squad in 1999 after losing all five 1998 starters. The undersized line was instrumental in producing the third-most prolific offense in school history (403 yards per game).
West admitted extended absences of key players will have an adverse affect on the unit. He said Monday was the first practice the starting five had been together this season.
"We're not going to be sharp early," West said. "It's the chemistry of having a solid five and developing consistency (that is missing)."
North Augusta product T.J. Watkins has been hampered by a hip flexor injury after being shifted from left guard to left tackle. Akil Smith started 11 games for the Tigers last year, including nine at left tackle, but a pulmonary embolism resulted in a medical redshirt for the 6-foot-4, 275-pound junior.
A severe back injury ended Aiken graduate Neely Page's career. Page (6-3, 285) started one game at left guard last year and was expected to provide depth this season. The coaching staff chose to redshirt junior college transfer tackle Derrick Brantley (6-6, 280).
Junior center Kyle Young is probable for Saturday's contest despite stress fractures in his right foot. Coach Tommy Bowden booted sophomore tight end Pat Cyrgalis off the team for subpar academic performances.
"That's where we had the most depth going in," Bowden said. "Now, it's becoming the thinnest."
Rhythm and timing are pivotal to Bowden's no-huddle offense. West expects Young to make his 17th consecutive start but Young said missed practices hinder continuity.
"It's a little bit frustrating," Young said last week. "I'd like to be in there and getting a feel of it. The rhythm has slowed down a little and the communication is different."
McDermott put a positive spin on the Tigers' predicament. The outbreak of injuries offered opportunities for second- and third-stringers, including senior center Brian Outlaw and freshmen guards Nick Black and Greg Walker.
The offensive line's future depth may be better with more players receiving repetitions in practice and games.
"It's part of the game," McDermott said. "Players will get hurt. You deal with it."
The Citadel: The news isn't good for the Bulldogs, which will go against No. 17 Clemson this week without starting defensive lineman Mario Richardson.
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound senior, one of The Citadels' captains, fractured a bone in his right foot and is expected to miss up to six weeks.
"Mario's injury is a major loss for us, as he is a team leader and a big part of the defense," Citadel coach Don Powers said.
Richardson's injury came on the final play of the team's scrimmage Saturday night.
Dr. Kenny Caldwell will operate on Richardson's fifth metatarsal bone Wednesday. Citadel's director of sports medicine Andy Clawson said Richardson will be out for four to six weeks.
Richardson was a preseason all-Southern Conference selection. He made 63 tackles a year ago. In 1998, he had 15 tackles for a loss and six sacks.
Reach Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3221.