That Mitch Hyatt, Clemson’s freshman left offensive tackle, doesn’t ask for help is no surprise – he’s always been the self-reliant sort.
That Clemson’s coaches never felt the need to offer him help is a bit more remarkable.
When the 6-foot-6, 295-pound Hyatt entered college last January, the plan at Clemson’s football office was to get him enough reps in spring practice that he’d be a competent backup. Then in June senior Isaiah Battle, the projected starter at the position, was dismissed from school after being cited for possession of marijuana and speeding.
That’s when the coaches went fast-track with Hyatt, a high school All-American from Suwanee, Ga.
This was a pickle: Hyatt would be asked to guard the blind side of quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Heisman Trophy candidate who was already coming off surgery to repair an ACL. Could Hyatt be trusted at the most demanding position in interior line play?
Turns out absolutely so.
"We never had to help him, not one time!" coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. "In not one game plan did we say, ‘We better have a plan to chip (a pass-rusher with a running back) or to slide a tight end over there or anything.
"In fact in most games, I don’t even notice him. A left tackle (starting) as a true freshman? I’ve never seen it. Probably never will again."
History reinforces Swinney’s point: The last time Clemson started a freshman at left offensive tackle was 1944, when the war effort decimated the Tigers’ roster and Phil Prince stepped into the position.
Hyatt hasn’t just gotten by, he has excelled. He started all 13 games of Clemson’s so-far undefeated season, and was recently named a first-team freshman All-American by USA Today and The Sporting News.
Thursday, in a semifinal playoff game against Oklahoma, Hyatt might spend much of the day blocking Eric Striker, the Sooners’ All-American defensive end-linebacker, who has 23 career sacks.
Hyatt has "it," in every way except his desire for publicity. He is polite enough in interviews, but it was clear Tuesday he’s uneasy talking about himself.
"If I went back and did it again there would be plenty of things I’d want to know. But it’s been a fulfilling process," Hyatt said. "Spring (practice) definitely helped a lot in slowing things down."
So to place Hyatt’s role in perspective, I went to Eric Mac Lain, Clemson’s gregarious left guard.
"You try to guide him as much as you can," said Mac Lain, a senior. "But at the end of the day, he’s got to be the biggest man out there, just dominate his position.
"He approaches the game so mentally, he prepares so well. He knows every move a guy is going to do or any blitzer or stunt. He picks it up very fast."
It is difficult, even at top college programs, to find players with the combination of size, quickness and athleticism required of left offensive tackles. It’s that much rarer to find all that and be the quick study Hyatt has demonstrated.
Of course it helped that all spring he had to face Shaq Lawson, Clemson’s All-American defensive tackle. He either improved or faced daily humiliation in that matchup.
Hyatt was on Clemson’s recruiting radar since the start of his sophomore season in high school. The Tigers had an edge in that Hyatt’s uncle, Dan Benish, started at defensive tackle on Clemson’s 1981 national championship team.
Now Hyatt can duplicate his uncle’s accomplishment if Clemson advances to the Jan. 11 national championship game.
"The rule of thumb in football is the closer you are to the ball, the harder it is to play early," said Jeff Scott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. "Those receivers can play early. For an offensive lineman to play as a true freshman is almost unheard of.
"But it’s his maturity. Here’s a guy who, just like Deshaun, we got on really early. We told him all through his high school career to be ready to play early. Because he has that special ability."