Strong-side DE has slightly less depth than the weak-side, but to say it’s thin would be a joke. The whole group is insanely talented and as long as they stay healthy there should be 0 problems stemming from them, except for the problems they cause OLs. Let’s get started:
Coming into last season, the worry with Austin Bryant was that the foot injury he suffered in 2016 would hold him back. We had seen a flash of brilliance when he took over for a hobbled Shaq Lawson during the Orange Bowl and Clemson-Bama I, but he was really limited during the national title run, even after he had moved past his injury.
2017 put those doubts to rest. Bryant emphatically announced his return as the starter with a 4 sack performance versus Auburn, and went on to have 15.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks at the year’s end. His return eased depth problems that saw Christian Wilkins start at DE to keep things stable. Now it seems laughable to say that Clemson is thin at the position.
Bryant has a rare mix of size and speed; he oozes athleticism and makes so many seemingly-impossible plays seem routine. He can leap like a glitched-out NCAA Football 14 linebacker, run like a safety, and eats blocks like I eat unlimited wings.
Another converted linebacker (Venables seems to have a knack for making LBs into DEs), lots of eyes are on Register in hopes of his having a breakout year. He’s been biding his time and learning his new position since 2015, so the only thing he needs is playing time. For that very reason, Register may be the player that suffers the most from the starting four returning, as this will be his last in Tiger Town.
Coming in at a listed 6’3”, 254lbs, Register is one of Clemson’s smaller defensive ends, as funny as that seems. Dabo claims Register could start for almost anyone, and I hope Register gets the playing time he needs. But in such a crowded rotation, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets passed by Rudolph or Thomas at some point during the season.
Last season started alright for Rudolph, but a shoulder injury in practice ended his season in September and he took a medical redshirt.
He only played in 26 snaps last year, but in that limited time he showed a good ability to seal the edge and a lot of energy. He was always running when he was on the field and should be a good rotational player when Austin Bryant gets tired.
Oh, and if Rudolph gets plenty of playing time expect announcers to repeat the fact that he is Steelers QB Mason Rudolph’s younger brother over and over and over again.
The other all-world-just-draft-him-already-5-star-recruit at end coming in this season, Thomas is getting almost as much hype as the fabled Trevor Lawrence. Thomas is an absolute maniac on the field, or at least he was in high school. His first step rivals that of Clelin Ferrell and his ability to convert speed to power occasionally just flatten offensive linemen.
(That is the #19 rated player in the country and current Michigan State commit Devontae Dobbs, by the way)
I’m really hoping to see a lot of Xavier Thomas, just so that I can enjoy watching him as much as possible. He and KJ Henry bring a lot of added excitement into this defensive line unit that didn’t even really need it. I’m happy to have it though, and I’m excited to see what insane athletic feats XT achieves in his time at Clemson.
Just like with the weak side DEs, there’s a bit of a log-jam on the strong side. It’s a fantastic problem to have, as more depth means more rest for the starters and a greater ability to adapt to facing different offenses, but there is only so much playing time to go around.
Overall I think that if Venables is focused on replacing Austin Bryant come 2019, he’ll send Logan Rudolph and Xavier Thomas in as much as possible to give them experience, leaving Chris Register on the bench more often than not. Register should get valuable playing time as a sub in the more important moments, when you want someone with more time under their belt to be filling in, but don’t expect to see anyone but the freshman when Clemson throws a game into cruise control.