Only a few weeks ago it appeared that Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry had played their final games at Clemson. The Tigers would still have Myles Murphy at defensive end, but little other proven talents at the position. Now we know that not only will KJ Henry return, but so will Xavier Thomas:
Thomas finished 2021 with 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. While those numbers don’t blow you away, the eye test shows him being consistently disruptive.
Thomas will be a fifth-year Super Senior thanks to the NCAA’s blanket waiver. Back in 2020, Thomas contracted COVID-19 and strep throat consecutively and was unable to get into football shape for the start of the 2020 season. The staff planned to get him into four late-season games and redshirt him, but with the NCAA waiver, he was able to play seven games and not use a year of eligibility.
His return comes as a surprise after several tweets that seemed to point to him leaving. A since-deleted tweet on December 15th showed someone waving goodbye and disappearing as a reply to an inquiry about his potential return. He also retweeted the below message which assumes his Clemson career is over.
Thomas was far from a lock to go in the first round of the NFL draft. He will now return and work to become just that.
Clemson’s defense appears loaded for 2022. The entire starting defensive line of Myles Murphy, Tyler Davis, Bryan Breese, and Xavier Thomas will be back. Key reserves Ruke Orhorhoro, Etinosa Reuben, Tre Williams, and KJ Henry will return too.
At linebacker, James Skalski and Baylon Spector both depart, but Trenton Simpson — who led the linebackers with six sacks — is back and there are highly-rated young players like Barrett Carter and LaVonta Bentley ready for bigger roles.
Safety could be Clemson’s strongest position group. Andrew Mukuba was among the best in the ACC as a true freshman and RJ Mickens, Jalyn Phillips, Tyler Venables, and Lannden Zanders give Clemson a ton of good options to replace Nolan Turner. The only question for the defense is how they’ll replace their two All-ACC cornerbacks — Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich. Sheridan Jones should provide stability while several young players like Fred Davis II appear poised to step up so even cornerback isn’t too worrisome.
The 2022 Clemson defense could be special. Hopefully, it pairs with a workable offense and makes for a special season!