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2021 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defensive Line

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Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The 2018 Clemson Tigers boasted one of the greatest defensive lines in college football history. DE Clelin Ferrell led the team with 11.5 sacks and was selected 4th overall in the following NFL draft. Austin Bryant, the other starting defensive end, added 8 sacks while playing through a torn pectoral muscle. At defensive tackle, starters Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence — along with key reserve Albert Huggins — gave the Tigers a blend of size, speed, and strength that even Alabama couldn’t compete handle.

That legendary group — dubbed the Power Rangers — led Clemson to a perfect 15-0 season. Clemson has been trying to get back to that standard ever since. In 2019, they obviously took a step back as they were replacing all five of the aforementioned players. Last year, they seemed poised to return to their dominant ways, but it never fully materialized.

DT Tyler Davis was great, as expected, but missed chunks of the season due to injury — most notably the first Notre Dame game. Defensive ends Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas both had COVID-related health issues hold them back. Some of the most consistent contributors were true freshmen DT Bryan Bresee and DE Myles Murphy. They each had 4 sacks, the most of any defensive lineman on the team. DEs KJ Henry and Xavier Thomas each had 3.5 sacks.

Clemson, thanks to the scheming of defensive coordinator Brent Venables, still finished 5th in sacks per game (3.8). Linebacker Baylon Spector led the team with 4.5 sacks while fellow linebacker Trenton Simpson added another 4.

There’s reason to believe Clemson’s 2021 defensive line will perform more like they did in 2018 than than in the past two seasons:

Maturity

Clemson returns all four starters from last season. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy now have a year under their belt and appear poised for big seasons. Tyler Davis is entering his junior season and, after being held back by injuries last season, looks to put together the kind of year that will make him a first round NFL draft pick. KJ Henry returns for his fourth season and will have an opportunity to make good on his 5-star billing coming out of high school.

Health

DE Xavier Thomas is reportedly down to 265lbs. Coach Swinney said:

“He’s in a great spot. He was like 290 this time last year and couldn’t run, couldn’t practice. He was in a bad place. He had issues with COVID. He couldn’t train. Isolation. Then he had strep throat. It was just a really tough, tough thing for him. He was so far behind physically and when you’re not where you want to be physically it affects you mentally. It’s a challenge. But he’s in a great place. That (265lbs) is right where... It’s an ideal spot. He’s had a great Summer... He’s been like a man on a mission... Excited for him and that whole group.”

DE Justin Foster didn’t play at all last season and planned to step away from football as his recovery from COVID, which was especially bad due to a pre-existing condition, wasn’t progressing the way everyone hoped. Fortunately, that has changed and with his improved health he reversed his decision to leave football.

Personnel

Clemson’s pre-camp depth chart breaks down the defensive line as follows:

DE - Myles Murphy
or Xavier Thomas
or KJ Henry

DT - Bryan Bresee
Ruke Orhorhoro

DT - Tyler Davis
Tre Williams
or Darnell Jeffries

DE - Justin Foster
or Justin Mascoll
or Xavier Thomas

With both Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster now healthy, Clemson’s depth at defensive end goes from what was a weakness last season to a major strength. The transfers of defensive tackles Nyles Pinckney (Minnesota) and Jordan Williams (Virginia Tech) sap some of the depth from the middle, but starters Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis are bonafide stars. Assuming they stay healthy there should be sufficient rotational depth behind them.

This defensive line has the potential to get Clemson back to their dominant ways from 2018. They’ll get tested early against the always strong Georgia offensive line. September 4th can’t get here soon enough!

For more on this topic as well as a preview of Clemson quarterbacks and the season as a whole, check out this episode of the Clemson Pawcast in which I was a guest.