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Clemson 2020 Season Review: Defensive Line

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NCAA Football: Boston College at Clemson Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations:

Defensive line has long been a strength for Clemson and that was never more true than in 2018 when the “Power Rangers” were the backbone of the defense. After all four starters and key reserve Albert Huggins were drafted, 2019 would obviously be a rebuilding year for the defensive line. Coach Venables employed a lot of three-down-lineman looks to mask depth issues. It worked reasonably well, but entering 2020, we were excited about the defensive line taking a big step forward. Here’s what we wrote in our preview:

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.

2020 Performance:

The off-season took a toll on Clemson’s defensive line. First, DE Logan Rudolph concluded his college career after just three seasons to pursue a career in acting. That was a blow, but with Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas, the Tigers still felt good about their starters. Then COVID-19 struck. Thomas contracted the virus and then got hit with strep throat. The combination derailed his conditioning and caused him to miss the start of the season. When he returned, it was in limited snaps. We saw flashes from Thomas, but he was never 100% and only started one game. Justin Foster had health issues as well and did not play in 2020.

Down their top three defensive ends, the Tigers turned to true freshman Myles Murphy. Fortunately, he delivered. Murphy led all DEs with 414 snaps and 4 sacks. He was Clemson’s most efficient passing rushing lineman. After Murphy, there was a drop off. KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll essentially shared time as co-starters opposite Murphy with 384 and 377 snaps, respectively. Henry had 3.5 sacks and was reliable, but wasn’t especially explosive. He did not look like a 5-star prospect in his third year with the program. Justin Mascoll (a former four-star) struggled at times.

At defensive tackle, Tyler Davis proved to be the most valuable member of the defense. He struggled with injuries throughout the season, and whenever he was unavailable, the run defense took a step back. He only played 196 snaps due to injury.

Bryan Bresee earned a starting role as a true freshman and won ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He led all Clemson defensive linemen with 432 snaps. He figures to be a star in the coming years. Providing depth were veterans Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams. Pinckney was solid, but didn’t take a big leap in his 5th year. He announced he is transferring to Minnesota for a 6th season where hopefully the change of scenery can help him make that leap and become an NFL draft target. Similarly, Jordan Williams was serviceable, but was out-recruited and has announced his transfer to Virginia Tech.

Overall, Clemson’s defensive line failed to reach the level that many thought they would at the start of the season. They finished 41st in passing yards allowed. While part of that can be blamed on struggles replacing K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse at safety, much of it was because the defensive line didn’t generate a ton of pressure (24.5 D-line sacks vs. 37.5 in 2018).

A rash of injuries to key players was the primary culprit. The Tigers' ability to battle through injuries throughout the year was admirable. It was fortunate that the two highly-touted freshmen, Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, were ready to contribute immediately because the injuries necessitated it. A tough situation created performance below expectations, but it was impressive considering the circumstances. With better injury luck and more experience, there’s reason to be excited about the 2021 Clemson defensive line.