Coming into the 2018 season, the hype surrounding Clemson’s defensive line was unbelievable. I predicted it would have four 1st rounders, many said it would be the best line ever, they could stop the run, the pass, they could play offense, they found Jimmy Hoffa’s body (turns out he was deep in Auburn’s backfield), banned the woo-hoo, and about a half dozen other amazing feats all coming into 2018.
They did not disappoint, let’s get started.
THE POWER RANGERS
What can I say about Wilkins that I haven’t said in one of my other defensive line preview/reviews? Not a lot, actually, so I’ll let those previous articles do the talking:
This dude has been a demigod since he stepped on campus, playing every position under the sun at some point and doing it well. Weighing in at 304 after summer, Wilkins is still the hulking mass we’re used to, even if he is eclipsed by the small moon named Dexter Lawrence.
Wilkins has all the energy in the world, and he uses it at every chance he gets. He played as many snaps as anyone last season and didn’t take plays off on a regular basis at all. If Wilkins was on the field, he was putting in work. Even when he wasn’t on the field, too, as seeing him sprinting to the end zone to celebrate a touchdown with the offense was a common sight. His agility, even at 304, is stunning, and it’s hard to imagine many teams passing on him come the 2019 draft.
The seemingly universally-loved large human, Christian Wilkins, will probably be remembered as the savior of this defensive line. Wilkins had had a wonderful 2015, which cemented his future at DT for Clemson, but then an injury to new starting DE Austin Bryant made the Clemson line critically thin at end. [...] Wilkins’ move to DE (even if it was only for 2016) was a star-making move, and the 2017 edition of Christian Wilkins (this time at DT, hopefully) is already generating mountains of hype.
Big Daddy Wilkins is the face of the Clemson program right now and for good reason. He was a dominant force along the line last year despite having to start at DE following Austin Bryant’s injury. Wilkins is now back on the inside and ready to torment interior OLs with his mix of speed, versatility, and his 6’4” 310lb frame. Wilkins is already being projected as a top 10 pick in next year’s draft, and I’d be a little surprised if that doesn’t happen. Wilkins can do it all, and will once again be a force for Clemson next fall.
Wilkins was exactly the man we’d thought he would be coming into 2018 and more, as a result, Clemson got another ring. He is without a doubt the face of this team and will go down as one of the best Clemson players in history. A lot of players have come and gone in my time as a Clemson fan, but I’ll miss Wilk the most. There is no one like him.
Retire #42 and don’t bring it back.
Clelin Ferrell has been an oasis of stability at a position that had seen turnover year after year, leading many to worry that Clemson would eventually have no talent left to fill the void. When he “arrived” during the 2016 postseason run, Clemson fans could worry no more.
Following a dominant 2017, he was the Power Ranger that I was most sure would be gone for the draft, but none of them were. His 2018 didn’t disappoint in the slightest, he was the same exact consistent Clelin we’d come to know, leading the ACC in sacks with 11.5 and Clemson to a second title under his watch.
He’s a surefire first rounder with his measurables and instincts, and with his level of experience, you don’t have to worry about him being unready to play; expect him to make an impact somewhere day one. One can only hope that those DEs projected to fill his role (K.J. Henry in particular) are as advertised, as Clemson is losing one of its best ever to rush the QB.
A vastly underrated and under-appreciated defensive anchor, DE Austin Bryant has been at Clemson just as long as oldest-living-human Hunter Renfrow. He stopped Samaje Perine on 4th down in the 2015 Orange Bowl, came back to help fill in for an injured Clelin after being himself injured in 2016, sacked Jarrett Stidham 4 of the 11 times Clemson got to him in 2017, and so much more.
This foolishness from the 2017 VT game?
That was Austin Bryant, too.
In 2018, he was the same smart player we always expect. Coming up big when you need him and never making huge mistakes, the kind of DE that any team could want. He’s a quiet complement to Clelin Ferrell and their games could not pair better. His expected replacement, Xavier Thomas, does assuage quite a few nerves I have about losing a player like Bryant, as he has all the tools you could ask for in someone looking to replace #7.
14-year NFL vet Dexter Lawrence is a massive hole to fill, and not just because that hole is 6’5” 340+. An incredibly agile man for such a size, Dex alone could allow Clemson to drop 8 into coverage regularly without having to worry. Part of me wants to see if he could cause problems for an OL being the only pass rusher (the opposing OL would at least be scarred by it).
The ostarine ordeal ended his 2018 season and Clemson career as a whole a few weeks early, and it’s unclear how it will impact his draft stock. Outside of that, though, his 2018 was overall a success, he even scored a glorious touchdown:
He won’t be the #1 pick (I still think he should be. You know you want to do it, Kliff Kingsbury), but whichever team takes him will get a rare run stopping master that can eat as many blocks as you throw at him, while also being in-shape so he can deal with high-tempo offenses. He’s going to play at the next level for a long time provided he can stay healthy and keep his weight from ballooning.
I’ll miss gif-ing you, Dex. Good luck.
Often referred to as a mere backup, Albert Huggins was in truth one of the best DTs in college football in 2018 and absolutely deserves to be mentioned with the rest of the starters. A player of Dexter Lawrence’s quality being suspended at the most important time of the year would be a death sentence for many teams, not Clemson. Albert Huggins stepped in and the DLine seemed just as potent, the task of Notre Dame was easily dispatched and Alabama looked surprisingly inept even without the Dex Star across the line. All of this can be attributed to just how good Huggins is. He will be drafted and it will not surprise me even a little if he has a long a fruitful NFL career.
THE BABY RANGERS
Despite being a top 3 recruit just a year ago, XT is just the 3rd most notable freshman on this Clemson team right now. He may not have had a crazy-catch-filled playoffs like Ross or become a starter like Trevor, but he’s had his fair share of huge moments.
Xavier Thomas feels like you took Austin Bryant, cloned him, then spent 18 years teaching said cloned baby to hate quarterbacks more than anything (and also Jake Gyllenhaal but honestly who can blame you for forgetting about that part of Jarhead (2005) that has football in it).
He’s fast, looks like some kind of off-brand avenger, but most of all, he has a vicious bull-rush that will make any unprepared lineman look silly and nearly killed Eric Dungey.
The true freshman Thomas made sure he was visible, playing on bigger stages and with greater success than anyone expected for such a young end at such a depth-filled position. He is going to do great things at Clemson and helping win the program’s 3rd national title is just the start.
The other true freshman five star end that’s a clone of a current starter, K.J. Henry, spent most of last year learning everything from QB sacking to havoc making from Clelin Ferrell. He did see game action, though, a great result of the new redshirt rule allowing him to see action in four games.
Henry is mostly on this list in preparation for next season, there isn’t a lot to say about his 2019 performance, but his future as the opposite to Xavier Thomas makes him hard to skip over without saying anything. Expect to be overly familiar with K.J. Henry by this time next year.
These three more or less completed the main rotation of ends for Clemson, there were others, sure, but if you saw an unfamiliar number out there it was usually from that group. All these guys will see bigger roles come next year, Justin Foster, a highly-skilled end in his own right, has a good chance of starting over K.J. Henry, every spot on the line is up for grabs and everyone going for one of those spots is more than worthy of one. Logan Rudolph, the end that every announcer during every game will tell you is the brother of Steelers’ QB Mason Rudolph, saw more action than I expected in 2018 and will get an even bigger role in 2019. Finally, Nyles Pinckney is an underrated name on the line and will be a great player competing for a spot at DT, he’s big, mobile and never gets fooled.
In the end, this isn’t a traditional “review” more of a fawning over the legends leaving the team. To say the defensive line was the pride of this Clemson team is an understatement, the defensive line is everything to this team, without it, none of the success Clemson has found the last four years would be possible. This was the best defensive line to ever play football at Clemson, there’s not even a slight doubt in my mind, if I had to grade them they’d get an A+, two thumbs up–no four thumbs–eight? Whatever the best possible rating can be. All four of the starters were on the team for at least three playoff trips and two titles, those baby rangers have some big shoes to fill, the literal and figurative biggest shoes ever stepped out of in Clemson history. Farewell, Power Rangers, and good luck in the NFL.