Panthers tackle Clemmings grows into role

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There was a moment, perhaps three or four practices into Pitt's 2014 spring drills, when T.J. Clemmings had a realization.

He was no longer a defensive end playing on the offensive line. He was the Panthers' starting right tackle.

It was at that point that Clemmings stopped getting bogged down in the mental aspects of playing offensive line -- he knew that well enough by then -- and just let himself play.

The change in attitude prompted center Artie Rowell to explain Clemmings' role on the offensive line in the offseason as "T.J. just goes out and crushes people."

"It feels good," Clemmings said of his newfound comfort. "You can play fast. You don't have to worry about, 'Oh man, what do I do?' You just go out there and play. You know what to do, you know your assignment, you know your technique and you play fast."

Clemmings shifted from defense to offense at the end of the 2012 season. He had 23 tackles in two seasons playing defensive end, but coaches saw his potential, as well as a thin offensive line, and decided a position change was in order.

He practiced there in spring of 2013, but admitted last season was a learning process.

"It was my first time ever playing offense, so everything was new," Clemmings said.

Clemmings said he leaned on the man next to him, right guard Matt Rotheram, to help him out.

The two are working together again this year, but Clemmings but the dynamic between them is different.

Now, they work together to take on defenses.

"This year, we're both on the same page," Clemmings said. "We understand each other. We don't really talk too much out there, as much as we did last year because we both know what to do."

The coaches, too, have noticed Clemmings' improvement.

Panthers coach Paul Chryst was effusive this spring in his praise for how much he had improved over the winter, and Chryst said Friday that the growth had continued over the summer into training camp.

"The spring that T.J. had kept pushing his bar higher in what he expects from himself," Chryst said.

"A year ago today, he had 15 practices [as an offensive lineman], so he's had a year. He's learned from that. We need him to be really good."

Even offensive line coach Jim Hueber, who doesn't hesitate to get on players verbally during practice, had kind words for Clemmings.

"[He has improved by] leaps and bounds," Hueber said.

"That doesn't mean he doesn't have to learn anything, but he's ahead because of the fact that he's been out here, he's played. He's not starting from zero. He was playing catch up."

Clemmings' newcomer status played a partial role in the offensive line's struggles last season.

The unit gave up 43 sacks, fifth-worst in Division I-A, but four starters (including Clemmings) return and will be joined by highly-touted sophomore Dorian Johnson.

Clemmings didn't make any excuses for last season, but has visions of a brighter future.

"I come into this year looking to win," he said.

"We can't get last year back. Last year is last year. But I'm looking forward to a great season with this team."

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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