For decades, Clemson has made its living on the defensive line.
From the Fridge to Gaines Adams, Vic Beasley & Co. to the Power Rangers, it’s always been a vital ingredient to a good Clemson team. In 2019, though, there were a lot of depth issues and growing pains after the departure of our beloved Rangers, forcing a shift to using a three-man front on most plays. That changes in 2020.
In one fell swoop, Clemson’s depth on the line has gone from a shaky unit to a huge benefit, and suddenly it has depth to spare. Nearly every player in the two deep returns. Add in developmental players coming into their own, like former five-star K.J. Henry, and things are looking up.
Oh, and then Clemson brings in one of the best defensive line recruiting classes I’ve ever seen. Alliteratively headlined by #1 overall recruit Bryan Bresee and #1 DE (#7 overall) Myles Murphy, bolstered by top 40 recruit Demonte Capehart and four star Tre Williams at DT, these are four players you should get used to seeing.
Let’s get to it.
Once a mere developmental hopeful, Justin Foster now serves the role of grizzled veteran lineman for this young unit. He’s an extremely hard worker, the type of lunch pail guy that you’d expect to see leading a mid-2000s Virginia Tech team.
I’ve been a fan of Foster’s from the start, be it because of his attitude, weird number, or style of play, he’s always fun to watch work.
This man has me excited. He’s just a freshman, but he’s already been listed as the #2 end behind Foster. I expect to see him a lot. For starters, he’s big. Standing 6’5” and weighing over 270, he’s got the size you want for a DE plus plenty of speed and strength to pair with it. Plenty of reviews have already come back saying he’s ready for action. No less than Clemson’s own offensive lineman Jordan McFadden told SI.com that Murphy is not a “regular freshman,” he’s ready to go now, and he’s “only going to get better.” Safe to say I’m ready to see what he can do.
Last year, when previewing the defensive line, I used Davis to highlight a particular worry:
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.
So while I was right to be worried about depth issues along the line, I probably should’ve picked someone else to use as my prime example. Davis was excellent as a true freshman starter in 2019, maybe the brightest spot along the line altogether – earning a spot on the All-ACC 2nd team. Davis is great at clogging up the lane or getting to the QB, and his size really makes me think of him as a Grady Jarrett reincarnation. Here’s to hoping he can keep up the good work in 2020.
Our favorite revolutionary war general and fake field goal stopper has done a more than adequate job filling in for the massive holes left by Wilk and Dex’s departures to the NFL. He quickly adapted to the regular starter role, adds to the list of Clemson defensive linemen with great jersey numbers, and will serve as a vital piece in 2020.
Ruke Orhorhoro, Jordan Williams, & Darnell Jefferies
This group of DTs is pretty broad, but all look to see increased time in 2020. Williams is currently expected to get the most playing time next to Davis, but expect to see a rotation of guys in the middle. Venables likes to do that even when the entire DLine pecking order is set. Orhorhoro is a developmental guy that saw some action in 2019, and the coaches have said he’s close to becoming a guy they can rely on every down. Finally, Darnell Jefferies, everyone’s favorite uncle, is actually a really good defensive tackle too. Who would’ve thought? Definitely expect to see these guys more, and, please, learn to pronounce Orhorhoro.
Speaking of names you should get used to hearing, we have all-universe recruit Bryan Bresee coming in to shore up this already talented line. Even though he’s rated as the #1 recruit according to the 247sports composite, some Clemson fans named Brent and Dabo still think he’s being overlooked. They’ve got him learning as much as they can in prep for 2020 and beyond. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be a special player.
It’s weird thinking of a five-star recruit as a developmental guy, but I really think Henry is one. He’s spent the last two years biding his time and learning behind others. Dabo said that the year he spent as a redshirt was particularly helpful. And with the status of Xavier Thomas being so uncertain (more on that later), now is the perfect opportunity for Henry to step up and display his talents. By all accounts he’s had a great fall camp, and if Dabo thinks he’s ready, I’m ready for him to show me.
The other incredibly highly-rated recruit that came in along with Trevor Lawrence has had a bit of an up and down career so far, not producing as much as one may expect. His freshman year was exciting, featuring a sack on Eric Dungey that I’m legally obligated to post in this preview:
By making plays like that while sitting behind Clelin Ferrell, the hype could only build and build. Coming into 2019, his production was going to be vital for a seamless continuation of the Power Rangers era, but he only produced 2 total sacks during all of last year as the DLine struggled at times. Blame that on the shifts in scheme to account for a lack of depth, blame that on being schemed against, or whatever else. No matter the reason, Clemson will need more out of its ends in 2020.
None of this is even to mention Thomas’ uncertain situation in 2020. A few weeks back, Dabo announced that Thomas would be redshirting 2020 as a result of his battles with strep and COVID-19 in the spring. He wouldn’t vanish, as the 4 game redshirt rule would allow for some use, but he’d spend the year getting back into shape. Then, with the NCAA’s announcement that no eligibility would lost for anyone playing in 2020, the redshirt became unnecessary altogether. A couple days ago, Dabo told reporters that Thomas’ recovery was going really well, so we may end up seeing more of him than expected in the latter part of the season. Only time will tell, though.
When I look back on the 2020 season, one guaranteed to be weird no matter what happens if it actually happens at all – I’m sure I’ll see a marked improvement along the DLine. No, this won’t be 2018, a time when we could almost rest on the shoulders of the insanely talented line, but it’ll be a crucial stepping stone to the DLines of 2021, 2022, and beyond. Almost all of these players will again be back next year, so get to know them and enjoy them.