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Despite limited playing time, Falcinelli fits culture of Clemson program, which should help this season

July 19, 2017

SUNSET — Robbie Caldwell doesn’t care to pretend like he had it all figured out when he was in high school. But the Clemson offensive line coach knows what he likes in a recruit.

“Rules limit you with how much you can be around them now, but you try to get to know them, you try to see what they do, how they do in school,” Caldwell said. “That’s important to me. I certainly was not one of them cum laude dudes. I slid out with a “D”-ploma. But (their schooling) — that’s important to me.”

Caldwell of course was cracking a self-deprecating joke about his own grades, but was hoping to make a larger point about culture and fit. While there are loads of talented players out on the recruiting trail, Clemson believes the pool of players that also fit in with the program’s identity and what it stands for is smaller.

Consider Justin Falcinelli, the ultimate example of what the Tigers seek.

“He’s adjusted to (an increased role at center) well,” Caldwell said. “He’s a very smart young man.”

Falcinelli, who hails from Maryland and is a fourth-year junior, is a whiz when it comes to computers, graphics and video. As part of Clemson’s media day at The Reserve at Lake Keowee golf course Tuesday, Caldwell shared with reporters that Falcinelli can actually put a new computer together out of spare parts. In high school, he took a computer graphics course and he has already earned his Clemson undergraduate degree in management, finishing in December.

As Falcinelli takes on a much larger role at center now that Jay Guillermo has moved on, Caldwell is confident Falcinelli’s intelligence will lend a helpful hand in the transition.

“I say this is a little bit easier (than putting together a computer),” Caldwell quipped. “You just point, go in that direction. He’s had a lot of fun doing it, but time will tell.”

The Tigers have also worked Gage Cervenka at the center position, which has given Falcinelli some competition ahead of fall practice, slated to begin Aug. 3. Cervenka redshirted as a defensive tackle before switching to the offensive line in 2016, while Falcinelli has played both center and guard, logging seven knockdowns in 297 snaps over 24 career games.

Caldwell acknowledged Falcinelli deserved more playing time than he got a season ago, but said that Guillermo had a firm grasp on the starting role and pointed out that constantly switching up the line would have disrupted Deshaun Watson.

As he turns the corner to 2017, a year in which he is supposed to see substantially playing more time, Falcinelli’s role immediately increases and perhaps becomes even more important to Clemson’s success with so many unknowns about the quarterback situation.

Fellow offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder likes what he’s seen so far.

“Obviously Jay (Guillermo), he was a very vocal guy, very friendly guy,” Crowder said. “But I think that Justin Falcinelli, I really like what I’m seeing this off-season. He’s competing. He’s showing that he belongs there.”

As preseason practice begins, Falcinelli will still have to earn the right to start, but all signs point toward the redshirt junior learning the ins and outs of his new responsibility well.

He has to.

“My group is the — a lot of people like to say the last stop before the bus station. But I don’t look at it that way. I tell them, we are the skill position,” Caldwell said of his message to the offensive line. “I tell all the kids in camp, I say, ‘Look over there, look at all those receivers, defensive backs, and all that. They can step with the wrong foot, maybe even use the wrong hand and still make a play. If we take one wrong step, it’s a tackle for a loss or quarterback sack. And everybody’s booing us.’”