Prior to the beginning 2017 season, had someone told you that Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, and Christian Wilkins were all going to come back for their senior year, you would have either not believed them or assumed the three suffered from injuries or had a major drop off. That was not the case. As the three junior members of the "Power Ranger" defensive line unit have decided to come back, their 2017 was just as dominant as expected. So in 2018, it will once again be MORPHING TIME!
Defensive end depth took a hit early as Richard Yeargin suffered a neck injury in preseason that forced him to miss the entire season. However, Austin Bryant (who was coming off of a limited 2016 campaign due to injuries) and Clelin Ferrell helped overcome that with their play. Ferrell finished the season with thirty-three solo tackles, eighteen tackles for a loss, and nine and a half sacks. Ironically, Ferrell's best performance statistically in 2017 was in the loss at Syracuse, which was the DL's worst game of the year. Ferrell racked up five and a half tackles for loss and three and a half sacks in the 27-24 loss to the Orange. Bryant finished 2017 with thirty-one solo tackles, fifteen and a half tackles for loss, and eight and a half sacks. Almost half of his sacks came from his best game, which was a seven tackle, four sack performance in the 14-6 win over Auburn where the Clemson defense sacked Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham eleven times.
Junior End Chris Register was able to provide some depth for Clemson. Register appeared in all fourteen games and registered 219 snaps. He will be returning for his senior season in 2018. Highly touted Freshman Xavier Kelly played in a very limited role. Kelly appeared in eight games for 72 snaps. He had one sack in the Tigers win over Wake Forest in October.
Defensive Tackles also brought it this year, and had much more depth to work with. After a great freshman campaign in 2016, Dexter Lawrence provided a solid encore.
Despite missing two games and only logging 387 snaps due to a leg injury, Lawrence was still able to be a force in the middle for Clemson when called on. The big fellow came away with thirty seven tackles and two and a half sacks. If the Tigers can get Lawrence back at 100% next season, things could get really fun.
After a season of playing defensive end, Christian Wilkins moved back to defensive tackle. Wilkins continued to be an absolute force for the Tigers. Wilkins produced sixty tackles and five sacks on the year. Wilkins had dominating games against Auburn and Miami, in which he combined for seventeen tackles and two and a half sacks. Wilkins was tied for leader in tackles with Kendall Joseph in the Miami game, each player having seven.
With Lawrence's injury, Clemson had to call on some other DT's to fill the void. Jabril Robinson and Albert Huggins each logged 206 snaps, while Nyles Pinckney logged 171. Huggins got the start during Lawrence's two game absence, and the three were in heavy rotation even in the games Lawrence played.
These defensive linemen are absurdly talented and very fast.
This play from the Georgia Tech really exemplifies how good these player are. First, Clelin Ferrel is so quick off the ball. He's so quick to hit the dive here and meets the fullback a good yard behind the line of scrimmage. On the backside, Wilkins is able to slip through the cut blocks and trail the play. He ends up being maybe a step behind the Tech quarterback before the pitch. 300 pound guys are not supposed to run like that. Bryant does a great job trailing deep and is right there in case anything gets cut back. Jabril Robinson got doubled low there, but other than that, this was as perfect as you could draw up. Robinson was high, but he's also 270 pounds. A healthy Dexter Lawrence is going to handle that better. As seen here...
Yes. That's Dexter Lawrence whipping a double team against two division one linemen. Also, note the ability of Austin Bryant to stay at home to get the ball carrier, and once again Christian Wilkins is quick on pursuit. Man, that's a work of art.
This year showed there is a lot of depth in this line, especially at DT. DE will get a boost with the return of Yeargin and Logan Rudolph from their injuries. Five star recruit Xaview Thomas will also add to the depth at end. Two guys that I am interested to see in the spring will be Sterling Johnson and Xavier Kelly. Both are young and were heavily recruited. Many thought Kelly would push for playing time this season with the injury to Yeargin, however he played a very limited role for the Tigers. It will be interesting to see if Thomas pushes him for playing time, and how he fits in the rotation. As with everything the Clemson defensive line does, expect the battles for playing time to be entertaining.