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Clemson Football Defensive Line Depth: The Importance of Recruiting

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 CFP Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve spent the aftermath of the last few weeks talking about Clemson’s lack of depth on the defensive line. Tyler Davis’ injury has exposed a real vulnerability in Clemson’s defense. Add in the injuries at linebacker and you get what we saw against Notre Dame, especially with QBs willing to leave the pocket and run.

One of the things we talk about every year after Signing Day is the idea of meeting our needs at various positions. A school can sign a top-5 class every year, but if it isn’t building depth, or recruiting well at certain positions, that top-5 class is meaningless. We’ve talked before about offensive line recruiting in particular and the idea of hitting numbers, but it isn’t a problem limited to one position group. This year we’ve seen what can happen on the defensive line when numbers aren’t hit and players leave unexpectedly.

Below is a list of players that committed to Clemson at DT and DE over the last 4 recruiting classes. In addition, Nyles Pinckney is on the list since he redshirted. All ratings come from 247Composite rankings to maintain consistency. First we’ll look at the DTs

Defensive Tackle Commits

Player Year Rating
Player Year Rating
Nyles Pinckney 2016 4
Josh Belk 2018 4
Darnell Jefferies 2018 3
Tayquon Johnson 2019 3
Tyler Davis 2019 4
Bryan Bresee 2020 5
Demonte Capehart 2020 4
Tre Williams 2020 4

The biggest problem here is that there isn’t a lot of upperclassman talent. We have Pinckney, and he’s certainly gotten snaps, but his struggles to be a consistently effective player really hurt the line. Josh Belk would be a junior but he left before ever playing a snap, and Darnell Jefferies was a project that continues on - he’s had 45 snaps all year.

And, of course, the big hole comes from the class of 2017. Clemson recruited 0 defensive tackles that year, and the only DT on the roster from that class is Jordan Williams, who was originally recruited as a DE. Williams has played a decent amount, but he isn’t that presence you’d expect from an older DT that has a natural ability.

Defensive End Commits

Player Year Rating
Player Year Rating
Logan Rudolph 2017 4
Justin Foster 2017 4
Jordan Williams 2017 4
Xavier Thomas 2018 4
KJ Henry 2018 5
Justin Mascoll 2018 4
Etinosa Reuben 2019 3
Ruke Orhorhoro 2019 3
Myles Murphy 2020 5

At defensive end we see that recruiting numbers have been better, but transfers and position changes have hurt the ends. Logan Rudolph is obviously no longer with the team, and while Justin Foster should be contributing, he hasn’t been healthy enough to play a snap. We also know that Xavier Thomas has been coming back from COVID-19, and that has hampered his performance. That has left Justin Mascoll and KJ Henry as the primary ends.

It is worth noting that Etinosa Reuben, Jordan Williams, and Ruke Orhorhoro all moved from DE to DT as their careers have progressed at Clemson. To make up the numbers Regan Upshaw has a scholarship (a former walk-on from the 2016 class) and Greg Williams moved from LB to DE. So, the total numbers at both positions look good, but when we look at the available talent Clemson is forced to rely on a lot of young players.

This isn’t a new problem. Last year we talked about how young the defensive line would be and the concerns about the pass rush. We saw it manifest in some 3-man fronts from Brent Venables, but also in a lack of a pass rush. In 2016 Clemson recruited LaSamuel Davis, Dexter Lawrence, Pinckney, and Xavier Kelly. Outside of Lawrence, who was gone, there wasn’t a lot of talent there to help out.

The good news is there is a lot of young talent in the pipeline. As these guys get experience this year they’ll be in a great position going forward. The class of 2021 also has some exciting talent in Cade Denhoff, Zaire Patterson, and Payton Page. Obviously, the loss of Korey Foreman is unfortunate, but the talent is coming.

Numbers are still concerning, though. Ideally Clemson is taking 2 DTs and 2 DEs every year at a minimum. The 2021 class needs another DT to hit that mark. Then if there are guys worth oversigning you can take on one or two, and some years you can take 3 at either position without affecting the numbers. But skipping out on a position for one class leaves Clemson open to problems with injuries, transfers, or guys just not panning out. And when it combines with inexperience at other positions on the defense it can lead to a drop in performance from what we are used to seeing under Brent Venables.