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2019 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defensive Line

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Bold new look, same great taste

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Nightmare fuel
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

My parents are trying to time the building of their new house perfectly, and things seem to be lining up pretty well so far, but a stone is yet to be laid, so knock on wood. The plans for the new house are drawn up, and their living situation for the meantime is well settled. The main thing now is the tear-down of the house on the new lot and timing putting down a whole new foundation just right. They’re taking their time to wait until the conditions are perfect so that they never have to think much about the foundation again. They understand the value of having a well constructed foundation, and that once it’s in place, everything else seems to just come together easier.

Clemson’s foundation is clear to see if you’re really looking. Sure, the wide receivers get a lot of talk and deservedly so, but the one thing those teams of the 80s and today have in common: elite talent on the defensive line.

But right now Clemson’s got an interesting situation with its foundation, you know, some new city ordinance is making them change it, or something. And right now we’re stuck in that in-between period where you’ve ordered all the stuff you need, and while some of it is here, there’s still plenty that’s on the way.

Gone are the days of the original power rangers and that means gone too are the days that the DL preview is so vast it encompasses 3 articles, but there is plenty of talent looking to replace them, so let’s get started

Defensive Ends

Xavier Thomas

Clemson may have lost an entire, legendary defensive line, but the line still has plenty of heavy hitters. First off the bench is sophomore Xavier Thomas–as a recruit, he was ranked behind only Ohio State QB Justin Fields and some guy named Tyler, or Trevor, or something.

To me, Thomas is the next generation of uber-athletic Clemson defensive ends, descendant of ends like Austin Bryant, Vic Beasley, or Kevin Dodd. He has that rare blend of looking like a muscle-hamster but having some true size to him. He will stun you with his speed and throw your quarterback down a flight of stairs if you stop paying enough attention.

RIGHT HERE OFFICER
EXHIBIT A
ESPN

In a backup role last year, Thomas had 8.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and around 30 total tackles. One can only imagine those numbers scaling up with the increase in snaps, and he’ll be added as another great name on that list of athletic, terrifying, havoc-inflicting, small-suburb demolishing DEs.

Logan Rudolph

Behind Thomas is yet another of one of those rotational guys subbed in to spell the top line when they get tired. That’s not to say he’s a bad player–on the contrary, as Xavier Thomas was one of those guys just last year.

Expect Rudolph’s numbers to go up with his increased time, and with that more chances for announcers to mention that his brother is Mason Rudolph, the backup QB for the Steelers.

Justin Foster

One of the surprises of spring ball was Foster holding KJ Henry at bay and claiming Clelin Ferrell’s vacant starting spot on the weak side. (This is where I pat myself on the back for calling Foster over Henry like 6 months ago) K.J. Henry is still quite good, he’s a former 5-star recruit, but when he arrived on campus it was clear he needed time to develop.

ESPN

Foster has the speed to go one-on-one and win as you see above, and should, like with Bryant to Thomas on the other side, be a continuation of what you saw on the line last year.

Plus he’s got a cool number for a DE, that’s always a bonus.

K.J. Henry

Just behind Foster (for now) is redshirt freshman K.J. Henry, the former 5-star out of North Carolina. Thanks to the new redshirt rule we did get to see a bit of Henry last year, and we noticed a few things. First, he is huge, standing close to 6’6” and has upped his weight to around 250 since arriving on campus. Look for him to gain even more while he works to reach that potential everyone sees in him. Next, he’s fast and has a lot of bend to go with it. He reminds me of Clelin Ferrell for a reason. Expect to hear his name a lot for a few years to come.

Defensive Tackles

Nyles Pinckney

Replacing the legendary Power Rangers in the middle would be a tall task for anyone, but I’m sure Pinckney can hold up his end of the bargain. Part of my confidence comes from Clemson’s ability to seemingly turn anyone into a top tier defensive tackle, part of it is that Nyles Pinckney sounds like a Revolutionary War general, and part comes from one particular play that Pinckney is famous for ruining:

In my veins
Only true Clemson fans remember this play
ESPN

For me, the important part of that celebration is the celebration, look how nimble that man is. Clemson is going to be fine, at least at the top line of defensive tackle.

Tyler Davis

Davis’ inclusion in this preview of the 1st & 2nd strings of the DL should highlight how thin (figuratively) Clemson is at defensive tackle. Davis was a 4-star recruit just last year, and we don’t know too much about him at this point. He’s about 6’1” and hovers around 300 pounds, and wears a FANTASTIC number for a defensive tackle, with #13. The complete opposite of the traditional scrappy, small possession receiver that the offense puts at #13.

In a perfect world, Davis would redshirt this year, but a year of rotational experience will also speed up his development.

Jordan Williams

Starting next to General Pinckney is redshirt sophomore Jordan Williams out of North Carolina. Originally an OLB, Williams has put on plenty of weight to go with his 6’4” frame, and should at least do a great job eating blocks to allow the ends or backers to get free and to the ballcarrier.

Williams didn’t see a ton of action last year, he had a sack versus FSU, but we were already up 52-3 at that point, so he was just adding to the twitter-swarm of people asking why Deondre Francois was in the game (something FSU fans asked constantly). Don’t fret, though, Williams should be more than capable as a starter.

Xavier Kelly

The converted 4-star defensive end out of Wichita, Kansas turned defensive tackle has put on some WEIGHT, coming in this year at 305 after arriving on campus a few years ago at around 240. It’s hard to say exactly what Kelly will be like as a defensive tackle, having spent most of his last few years learning the position and therefore not playing. But one can imagine he’ll be slippery and a pass rusher, stemming from his days at DE. It will be exciting to see what this Kansas man can do now that he’s been beefed up by a southern strength program (yes this is a jab at the “corn-fed midwesterner” people).

And hey, he’s also a talented painter:

Conclusions

Clemson has tons of exciting talent at the ends, and they get their first taste of starting this fall. Xavier Thomas is an incredible talent and I can only imagine the ridiculous things he’ll do to ACC QBs this fall. At defensive tackle, however, everyone will be waiting for next year when multiple 5-stars join the ranks of the interior DL. For this year, though, hope that the converted DTs have got themselves up to speed at their new position because they’ll get a lot of use this fall. I know you’ve gotten used to Clemson fielding a line that never makes a mistake, but be prepared for some growing pains – then again, XT and company may be far ahead of where we expect.