Norton aware of O-line perception

Norton aware of O-line perception

CLEMSON – On Ryan Norton's chin resides a huge, red furry mass of hair – one that juts off his face and even hangs a bit below his chinstrap during games.

He hasn't shaved it in nearly three months, and while its real purpose is to win a dare with friends, it symbolizes his growth in his first full season as Clemson's starting center.

As Norton's beard has matured, so has his play in the middle of the Tigers' offensive line.

The sophomore has become a solid leader for a line which has experienced its share of criticism and turmoil during the first nine games of the 2013 season.

As No. 8 Clemson (9-1, 6-1 ACC) prepares for Thursday night's visit from Georgia Tech, Norton feels comfortable in his role – but knows he still has plenty of work ahead.

"I'm going to look at myself very critically (at season's end)," he said. "That's how I've always looked at myself. I'm not going to say I've been doing good, not going to say I've been doing bad – that's something the coaches can say. But I have a lot to improve, and I'll continue to improve on those points."

Where can Norton improve? Where can't he?

"Pretty much every aspect," he said. "There's not one I can pinpoint where I'm like, ‘Man, I really need to improve on that one.' It's a lot of areas I'm going to continue to improve on."

Replacing four-year starter Dalton Freeman – a two-time All-ACC selection and two-time Rimington Award finalist – hasn't been easy.

Freeman and quarterback Tajh Boyd had two seasons worth of chemistry together, something that Norton and Boyd have had to build this fall.

"It's been a process," Norton said. "It's been growing more and more. I feel like I have confidence in him, he has confidence in the front. And we need to continue to build that confidence."

Steadiness, Norton said, has been the key.

"It's being consistent, mostly," he said. "Being consistent with my calls, being consistent with my protections so he has the understanding of what we're doing up front. Understanding what he needs to know."

As a freshman, Norton played 277 snaps over 12 games as Freeman's understudy.

His advice, Norton said, was invaluable.

"He helped me a ton, more than anyone else could teach me, about a lot of little things I wouldn't have thought about," Norton said. "Kind of coming from another player's perspective, he kind of makes you think about it a lot more. Last year helped me out a ton to prepare me for this year."

Norton serves as the line's quarterback, calling out changes and audibles at the line of scrimmage. So he takes criticism very seriously – whether of him or the entire line. He said there are "a lot of people talking negatively about this offensive line."

"If something goes wrong on the offense, usually they're going to say it's the offensive line's fault," he said. "But I feel like we're not pressing that much, but we can tell. We can see if something's going wrong and we're going to improve on it. That's all I can say. We're taking a step every day to improve as an offensive line, to work together to improve."

And despite a lineup that has lacked consistency at left guard and right tackle, that improvement has happened this season, Norton said.

"I feel like we've grown a lot as an offensive line and we'll continue to grow as an offensive line," he said. "There's more chemistry going on right now. I feel like we're having a lot more fun out there. Especially in practices the last few days I feel like we've had a lot more fun, we've all been very critical of ourselves, not enjoying every practice, enjoying every day. That's something I've seen a big change in the past few days. We're starting to enjoy it, have fun. That's built a lot more chemistry."

As the line has grown, so has Norton's beard. He last shaved in mid-August, saying at first he wouldn't cut it until Clemson lost a game. Now, he says, he'll grow it until season's end.

"I'm playing for a championship no matter what," he said. "It's just continued, no matter what." Defensive tackle D.J. Reader says the beard actually takes a little of the edge off Norton's look.

"Ryan looks kind of mean sometimes," he said. "He probably looks a little nicer with the beard. He looks like a little teddy bear."

Opposing defensive linemen would probably disagree. Either way, Norton has plenty of time left with the beard – and plenty of time left to develop.

"We have another two months," he said, "to see how long this thing can get."

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