For maybe the first time in the Dabo Swinney era, Clemson’s defensive line entered the year as one of the biggest question marks. It wasn’t lack of talent, just lack of experience, along with the tall task of following up the legendary 2018 Power Rangers defensive line. With all that, this year’s line played extremely well and proved that Clemson doesn’t rebuild, they reload.
It wasn’t completely a young unit, as Nyles Pinckney entered his junior year. In 2017, Pinckney found himself getting more playing time with the injury to Dexter Lawrence. The following season when Lawrence faced a playoff suspension, Pinckney jumped into the role of 3rd DT behind Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins. And we should never forget the tackle Pinckney made on one of the most memorable plays in Clemson history.
Pinckney’s numbers took a slight step back, going from 23 tackles to 20, but that may be due to Brent Venables’s use odd fronts. Pinckney also missed the national championship game with an injury. Fortunately for Tiger fans, Pinckney is coming back for one last ride in Tiger Town.
Probably the most hyped lineman coming into the year was Xavier Thomas. Thomas thrived in 2018 coming into spell Clemson’s starters as a pass rush specialist, but really took a step back in 2019 despite having a bigger role. With junior Justin Foster having a great year (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Thomas lost potential snaps to him and Logan Rudolph. Thomas also missed the first quarter of the national championship with an undisclosed disciplinary issue.
While it originally appeared we would see more competition between Xavier Thomas and Logan Rudolph this spring, Rudolph has decided to leave the program to pursue an acting career. Rudolph finished the year with 24 tackles and a sack, despite playing with an injured shoulder since the UNC game. It would’ve been awesome to see Rudolph get a full, healthy year to show what he’s got, but you definitely have to respect him for realizing the importance of his health and that he’s going to pursue his dreams.
KJ Henry had a decent year, with numbers mimicking Xavier Thomas. After moving to defensive tackle, Xavier Kelly had a lackluster year and has announced that he will enter the transfer portal.
The man that really, really showed out for the Tigers and quickly become a fan favorite is Tyler Davis. The freshman had a phenomenal first year, while also being absolutely the jolliest Clemson player.
Tyler Davis perfectly illustrates how the entire #ClemsonFamily feels this morning... #ALLIN pic.twitter.com/6Nh4XmpM9Z— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) December 29, 2019
How excited are you for gameday on a scale from 1 to Tyler Davis running through a sunflower patch? #ALLIN pic.twitter.com/2hDCrov2JN— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) December 28, 2019
Tyler Davis, a national treasure. pic.twitter.com/WKYa1ebCmO— YouGotRossed (@SolidOrange81) February 5, 2020
I honestly could post Tyler Davis videos all day. “Baby Dex” is quickly earning fan favorite status between his play and his demeanor.
While the Tigers’ D-line certainly took a step back from the best line in school history from 2018, they were still managed to be far above average. Clemson finished 13th in sacks per game (3.07) and 7th in TFLs per game (7.9). If that’s the “down year,” the future is bright.